Court Established Position in Ruling on Lawsuit over Inadequate Indigent Defense System
Eileen Farley, Director of the Northwest Defenders Division of the King County Department of Public Defense, has been selected as Public Defense Supervisor for Mt. Vernon and Burlington. The position was established by the U.S. District Court in Seattle in its December 2013 ruling that the cities’ public defense system deprives indigent persons who face misdemeanor criminal charges of their fundamental right to assistance of counsel. The court required the cities to hire a supervisor to ensure their defense system complies with constitutional standards, and the court is keeping jurisdiction over the case for three years while reforms proceed.
“We are pleased that the parties worked collaboratively to select a highly qualified attorney for the supervisor position,” stated Sarah Dunne, Legal Director for the ACLU of Washington.
Filed in 2011, the class action suit (Wilbur v. City of Mount Vernon) challenged the cities’ public defense system for systematically failing to provide meaningful assistance of counsel as required by the U.S. and Washington constitutions. A two-week trial in the case was held in June 2013, with additional briefing submitted in August.
In his December ruling, U.S. District Court Judge Robert Lasnik found that the system is broken to such an extent that “the individual defendant is not represented in any meaningful way, and actual innocence could conceivably go unnoticed and unchampioned.” The court found that the cities’ public defenders had excessively high caseloads, rarely provided an opportunity for the accused to confer with them in a confidential setting, rarely engaged in investigations or researched possible legal defenses, and overall failed to meaningfully represent their clients. Further, it found that city officials made deliberate choices that directly led to the deprivation of rights and failed to monitor or evaluate the system. The court concluded that the defense services for indigent clients amounted to little more than a “meet and plead” system.
In addition to selecting a Public Defense Supervisor, the cities have recently revised their existing contract for the provision of public defense in light of the Court’s findings. As a result, the firm handling the cities’ public defense services has hired an additional attorney and a full-time, on-site investigator.
Toby Marshall, counsel for the Plaintiffs, said, “We are encouraged by the cities’ initial efforts toward implementing the reforms necessary to ensure that every indigent person accused of a crime obtains the representation to which the person is entitled under our state and federal constitutions.”
The suit is being handled by ACLU-WA cooperating attorneys James Williams, Breena Roos and J. Camille Fisher of Perkins Coie LLP; ACLU-WA staff attorneys Sarah Dunne and Nancy Talner; attorney Toby Marshall of Terrell Marshall Daudt & Willie PLLC; and Matt Zuchetto of The Scott Law Group, PS.