Charleston School of Law to mark public defender decision with symposium


The S.C. Commission on Indigent Defense and the Charleston School of Law will host a major national symposium commemorating the 50th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Gideon v. Wainwright, a 1963 landmark case which recognized the Sixth Amendment right to counsel for all criminal defendants who cannot afford an attorney, and which led to the creation of public defender systems throughout the United States.

The symposium will be held on Friday, September 20, 2013, at the Charleston Museum, and will feature 28 prominent jurists, scholars and practitioners from across the country who will address the evolution of public defense, the increasing demands on the criminal defense practitioner,  prospects for extending the right to counsel in specific types of civil actions, and challenges in adequately funding state and federal public defense systems to comply with the requirements of Gideon and subsequent U.S. Supreme Court decisions.

Many of the symposium’s speakers and panelists have participated in key Supreme Court cases in the evolution of the right to counsel. The symposium’s keynote speaker will be Abe Krash, a retired partner with Arnold & Porter in Washington, D.C. Krash worked with Abe Fortas, Gideon’s lead counsel, in preparing the Gideon appeal. Fortas later was appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court.  William Hubbard, President-elect of the American Bar Association and a partner at Nelson Mullins law firm in Columbia will deliver introductory remarks and Chief Justice Jean Hoefer Toal will lead one of the panel discussions.

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Funding crisis greatly hurting public defenders

From KCTV5:

KCTV5 first told viewers about the funding crisis in Western Missouri’s Federal Public Defender’s office in May and the drastic steps the top defender took trying to fix it. But now new cuts are set to make it even more difficult for public defenders to do their jobs at the federal courthouse.

They count every piece of paper, 90 percent of their furniture is second-hand, and they carpool to visit clients. That’s reality in the penny-saving Federal Public Defender’s Office, and it’s about to get worse.  “I can tell you our heads are barely above water at this point,” said Steve Moss, acting federal public defender.

Two months ago, the office’s top Federal Public Defender, Ray Conrad, retired early to stave off layoffs, but that hasn’t solved everything.

Now a new round of cuts, likely 14 to 18 percent, is coming for the next fiscal year starting October 1.  “The case loads are going up, the budget is going down, so that’s a bad combination,” Moss said.

Public defenders handle 65 percent of the federal cases tried in the Western Missouri District, and right now the office is averaging 53 cases per attorney, double the load 15 years ago.

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Scrimping on justice for all

From The Washington Times:

Alarmingly, the federal public defender program is facing a crisis that may have a devastating impact on the ability of these lawyers to do their jobs, and on the fates of the people they represent.

Severe budget cuts, including those caused by sequestration, threaten to devastate federal defender offices across the county. The cuts to the federal defenders program have already forced these offices to furlough attorneys for up to 20 days this year. If Congress fails to provide adequate funding for 2014, a new round of budget cuts could force some offices to dismiss half their staff and force some offices to close.

Just as disturbing, the criminal dockets in our federal courts will become chaotic and unmanageable as federal defenders are forced to withdraw from cases because they are unable to continue to represent their clients. This resource-driven chaos has already begun to appear in various federal district courts across the country, particularly in complex, resource-intensive cases. For example, the trial of Osama bin Laden’s son-in-law in New York was recently delayed because his attorneys — federal defenders — were furloughed. These delays may hamper prosecutions, slow resolution of open cases, and cause some cases to be dismissed altogether if a defendant’s right to speedy trial is violated. This could prove to be a threat not only to justice, but to public safety.

Read the entire story here.

Presumed guilty: Unequal cuts threaten equal justice

From MSNBC (making the big time!):

The sequester is often described as an “across the board” spending cut–a term that implies shared sacrifice. For the criminal justice system, however, the cuts are one-sided. According to estimates from around the country, the sequester is hitting public defenders and courts far harder than prosecutors. Whether by design or default, the sequester is systematically magnifying inequities in the courts–and potentially undermining constitutional rights. The details vary by region, but in many federal districts, public defenders are facing cuts that are double to quadruple the size of their opponents across the court room. According to reports by defenders and government officials, that’s the case from Texas to Arizona and New Jersey to Massachusetts, where federal defenders are laboring under a $51 million shortfall.

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Big changes coming to Seattle indigent defense

Public defenders in King County, WA, are in for some changes this fall when county officials will put a new indigent defense system before voters. From Real Change News:

More than 200 public defense attorneys handle about 25,000 cases in King County each year, serving anyone who does not have enough money to pay for an attorney.

Four independent nonprofits that contract with King County employ these public defense attorneys.

In November, voters will decide whether the attorneys should instead work for a single public defender selected by the King County Executive from a pool of candidates nominated by a public defense advisory board. The defender would work for a four-year term and answer to the executive.

The system had to change one way or another. A 2011 court decision and subsequent settlement found that King County owes retirement benefits to current and past employees. The public defenders had been doing county-funded public defense work without receiving the same benefits as other county employees because they worked for independent nonprofits.

The settlement in the case established that the public defenders are employees of King County.

Read the full story for a few more details on the proposed changes to a system which the story alleges “is known throughout the nation for being unique.”