The biggest predictor of a public defender’s work quality is the size of the caseload, says the Washington Defender Association. The limit on felonies should be 150 cases a year, bar groups say. The Seattle Times reports that last year, Grant County, Wa., public defender Thomas J. Earl handled 413 – a staggering figure that “eviscerated the chances of a vigorous defense.” At that rate, Earl could devote an average of only four hours per case. When Earl lost his job two months ago, judges drafted 49 lawyers in a scramble to fill the vacuum.
Earl invited the work – and the money it paid. As administrator of a public-defense contract for the past three years, Earl determined caseloads and compensation for public defenders in Grant County Superior Court. The more cases he kept for himself, the fewer he had to dole out. And the fewer he doled out, the more money he kept. In 18 years as a public defender, Earl’s annual pay for court-appointed work climbed from $40,000 a large slice of $500,000 – the amount of his public-defense contract. At a disciplinary hearing last year, an attorney for the bar picked up a green marker and drew a dollar sign. “Mr. Earl,” she said, “put a price tag on the administration of justice.”
In 2002, Lisa Tabbut, a public defender in Cowlitz County, juggled 276 dependency cases, 295 juvenile cases, and 16 criminal appeals. That was six and one half times the accepted standard, says the Seattle Times. “It is so much,” she says. “Frankly, it’s malpractice per se. It’s insane. You just can’t help people when you’re dealing with numbers like that.”
Tabbut’s dilemma is repeated again and again, in courts throughout and America as public defenders labor to keep up with stunning caseloads. “It’s a huge concern, all over the state,” says Cowlitz County Superior Court Judge Stephen Warning. “This is an ongoing, great big problem.”
The Seattle Times today published the third in a sesries of articles on public defenders. Crime and Justice News erroneously attributed the first article in the series to the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.
Yesterday, The American Civil Liberties Union and Columbia Legal Services yesterday filed a class-action lawsuit seeking to reform Grant County’s public defense system, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer reports. “Grant County officials have mismanaged the county’s public defense system and have allowed it to descend into chaos. Things have gotten so bad that county judges are seeking to conscript unqualified attorneys to do public defense work. The situation is intolerable,” said attorney Patricia Arthur of Columbia Legal Services. The suit demands that the county operate a constitutionally adequate system of public defense.