Fla. Supreme Court Sides With Public Defenders by Brendan Farrington

Posted: June 5, 2013 in News and politics

TALLAHASSEE | The Florida Supreme Court sided with public defenders Thursday in a ruling that said lawyers who defend the poor can seek to refuse new cases if their workload and limited money would keep them from providing defendants adequate representation.

The ruling settles a yearslong dispute after the Miami-Dade County public defender in 2008 asked a circuit judge for the right to refuse third-degree felony cases. At the time, lawyers working for the Miami-Dade public defender’s office had an average of more than 400 cases. The judge granted the request, but the State Attorney’s Office appealed the decision and won.

The Supreme Court’s decision overturns the appeals court ruling.

“Third-degree felony attorneys often have as many as fifty cases set for trial in one week because of the excessive caseload,” the court wrote in its ruling. “Attorneys are routinely unable to interview clients, conduct investigations, take depositions, prepare mitigation, or counsel clients about pleas offered at arraignment.”

The court called the situation “a damning indictment of the poor quality of trial representation that is being afforded indigent defendants.”

Miami-Dade Public Defender Carlos Martinez said he was elated.

“This decision lifts the spirits of attorneys everywhere who, due to crippling caseloads, have been confronted with the difficult decision of picking and choosing which client gets legally competent and diligent representation and which do not,” Martinez said in a statement.

The Supreme Court did ask the Miami-Dade Circuit Court to assess whether conditions today are still excessive.

The Supreme Court also said that when there are extreme, systemwide problems, it goes beyond making judgments on refusing cases on an individual basis.

“This approach wastes judicial resources on redundant inquiries,” the ruling said. “This is tantamount to applying a Band-Aid to an open head wound.”

The ruling comes 50 years after a landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision in another Florida case that said states must provide lawyers for impoverished criminal defendants.

The U.S. Supreme Court in 1963 ordered a new trial for Clarence Earl Gideon because a judge denied his request for a court-appointed lawyer before he was convicted of breaking into a Panama City pool room and stealing $65 from vending machine. Upon retrial, Gideon was acquitted.

The Gideon v. Wainwright opinion led to the creation of public defender systems across the nation.

This story appeared in print on page B5
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