Lawyers who defend poor people in criminal cases have been sharing their stories about painful budget cuts. Some federal public defenders have shut their doors to new clients after big layoffs. In many states, the public defense system has operated in crisis for years. NPR reports that an unprecedented Justice Department court filing has cheered the overburdened attorneys who represent the poor and could have dramatic implications for the representation of indigent defendants. “This is a breakthrough moment,” says Norman Reimer of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.
Federal lawyers say the decision to weigh in on a case about the quality of indigent defense in Burlington and Mt. Vernon, two cities north of Seattle, is nothing short of historic. “We are absolutely committed to the principle that every indigent person who is accused of a crime is entitled to his or her constitutional right to effective assistance of counsel,” says Jocelyn Samuels, who leads the DOJ civil rights unit. When plaintiffs sued, the cities had just two part-time lawyers running 2,000 misdemeanor cases. The Justice Department didn’t take a position on whether public defenders in the cities systematically deprived people of their Sixth Amendment right to legal counsel. If a judge finds those cities should be on the hook, Justice lawyers urged that an independent monitor be appointed for public defender workloads, the first time ever in a federal case like this one.