Idaho lawmaker committee examines public defense

BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Lawmakers on a committee charged with fixing Idaho's public defense system were cautioned Tuesday that if they create new standards to ensure indigent defendants get a fair shake in court, the state could open itself up to lawsuits.

Ada County Public Defender Alan Trimming told the Legislature's Public Defense Reform Interim Committee that everyone had better be ready to meet any guidelines the state issues, such as requiring publicly paid lawyers to have access to better resources. Otherwise, Trimming said, the standards would simply serve as a "launch pad for litigation."

On the other hand, the American Civil Liberties Union of Idaho and other legal experts have repeatedly warned that Idaho's patchwork public defense system is unconstitutional, so it's already a potential target for lawsuits.

In 2010, a report from the National Legal Aid and Defender Association found that Idaho isn't satisfying its Sixth Amendment obligations to defendants. Among the issues, public defenders' caseloads were too high, some defendants didn't meet their lawyers until they were in the courtroom, and defendants sometimes felt pressured to accept a plea agreement rather than go to trial.

In the past four years, the Idaho Criminal Justice Commission and the lawmakers on the interim committee have studied the issue, and the Legislature has passed some bills designed to improve parts of the system. Earlier this year, lawmakers agreed to create a special Public Defense Commission charged with overseeing public defenders in Idaho and provide training to attorneys.

Trimming told the lawmakers on the committee that he doesn't oppose the state's move to create standards, but Idaho should avoid adopting anything that goes beyond the basic rights for criminal defendants enshrined in the U.S. Constitution.

"If you adopt them (the standards), whether it be caseload or workload or what, then you have to pony up. You have to meet them," Trimming said. "Because if you don't, then you're not averting litigation — you're creating a launch pad for litigation."

Trimming did say he supports some guidelines to ensure that public defenders don't have more cases than they can handle, or lack the resources needed to hire forensic investigators and other specialized help when appropriate.

"I recommend caution, and I'm not saying in any way there's not room for improvement in this state," Trimming said.

Leo Morales, the communications director for the ACLU of Idaho, said Idaho is at a critical juncture and the decisions lawmakers make this summer will either put the state on a constitutional path or, possibly, force others to intervene through the courts.

"Everyone knows we need statewide standards and more funding for public defense," said Morales, who attended the committee meeting. "And Alan Trimming is right: If the state adopts inadequate standards, or it does not follow through with the adequate resources it needs to come into compliance, it's begging for a lawsuit, forcing the courts to come in and fix this system."

Dan Chadwick, executive director of the Idaho Association of Counties, told lawmakers there should be a sense of urgency to their work. Counties are responsible for providing public defenders to poor criminal defendants, and many of the counties in the state rely on contracts with private attorneys to do so. The new guidelines, once created, will effect what those contracts look like.

Statewide, 65 percent of county public defense contracts will expire within the year, Chadwick said, so the commission has a lot of work to do and needs to get it done quickly.