A U.S. District Court judge has awarded more than $2.1 million in legal fees and costs to attorneys who worked for several years on a lawsuit that successfully challenged the quality of legal representation given to poor and indigent people in Mount Vernon and Burlington, Skagit County.
The award was granted in April to lawyers from the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington (ACLU) who filed a lawsuit more than three years ago claiming that misdemeanor defendants in those two cities were subject to an inadequate defense amounting to a “meet and plead” justice system that came nowhere near meeting the requirements of the Sixth Amendment.
The ACLU claimed the cities had been willfully indifferent to their responsibilities under the Constitution to provide a meaningful defense to thousands of defendants unable to hire their own attorneys. A federal judge ultimately found that the cities routinely violated the rights of poor defendants accused of misdemeanors by failing to ensure they had adequate legal representation.
The landmark case will have an impact not only in Washington but throughout the country, Sarah Dunne, legal director for the ACLU of Washington, said this morning.
“This puts municipalities on notice that they cannot run a constitutionally deficient system,” said Dunne. “And the ACLU of Washington is actively looking for municipalities in this state that do not provide meaningful representation for the indigent accused.”
Cities that do not do so, she said, “should not be surprised to hear from us.”
During a two-week bench trial last year, evidence showed that two now-departed public defenders working on contract for the two cities carried yearly contract caseloads of more than 1,000 clients each while also maintaining private practices.
The complaint and evidence presented at trial indicated Burlington’s assistant chief of police complained to prosecutors and city officials in 2008 that he’d repeatedly witnessed the public defenders doing crossword puzzles and playing other games while representing clients in court.
Court records showed the defenders visited the Skagit County Jail just six times in 2010, and in 2011 they participated in just two trials while closing 2,271 cases, most of them plea bargains.
The Washington State Bar in 2012 adopted guidelines calling for maximum yearly misdemeanor caseloads of 400 clients.
In his ruling on the case last year, U.S. District Court Judge Robert Lasnik said the cities’ actions should be guided by the bar’s guidelines, but he did not impose a caseload cap for the attorneys as the ACLU had sought.
Lasnik said the cities’ public defenders had nearly “complete absence of opportunities for the accused to confer with appointed counsel in a confidential setting” and that there was “almost no evidence” they investigated or did legal analyses of cases. He also said the cities remained “willfully blind” to the issues, mostly because fixing the system would cost too much.