Daniel Hynes

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Judge finds some public defenders ineffectve under 6th amendment right to counsel

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On Dec. 4, a federal judge in Washington State issued a stinging rebuke of the public-defense systems of two towns near Seattle, finding them so inadequate that they violate the Sixth Amendment right to the assistance of counsel in criminal prosecutions.

Calling it “little more than a ‘meet and plead’ system,” U.S. District Judge Robert Lasnik excoriated the cities of Mt. Vernon and Burlington, Washington, for failing to provide meaningful representation to indigent defendants facing misdemeanor charges."


Judge Lasnik agreed, pointing out that the two lawyers the cities had contracted for this work — both of whom had separate private practices — each handled about 1,000 cases per year, far in excess of the state supreme court’s annual public-defender caseload cap of 400.

As a result, the lawyers (and those from a separate firm that later took over the work) often spent less than an hour per case, meeting clients for the first time in the courtroom, “sometimes with a plea offer already in hand.” There was no opportunity, or financial incentive, for the lawyers to interview the client, understand his or her side of the case, seek out witnesses, hire experts or investigators, or do any of the things a defense lawyer ought to do in the process of representing a client."

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