Excessive caseloads prevent public defenders from fulfilling their ethical obligations and curtail criminal defendants’ right to the effective assistance of counsel. Despite this ethical and constitutional dilemma, legislators have been reluctant to provide adequate funds for indigent defense. And because of the separation of powers, courts have been unable to force legislators’ hands. Against this backdrop, criminal defendants in states that choose not to adequately fund indigent defense face a serious risk of wrongful conviction.
The Orleans Public Defenders Office (OPD) provides a case study of public defenders playing a stronger role in spurring legislative reform. In response to a funding crisis in Louisiana, the OPD refused to take new cases beyond constitutionally permissible workloads. This refusal resulted in criminal defendants being put on waiting lists for representation, which garnered national attention, gave rise to class action lawsuits against the state, and created a threat to public safety. These are governance problems that legislators prioritize over funding indigent defense. The OPD’s refusal to take new cases has been somewhat successful: in response to this crisis, the state legislature has provided additional funds to public defenders’ offices in the state.
Public defenders are in a unique position to put pressure on legislators. By refusing to take new cases that would cause their workloads to be excessive, public defenders can both maintain their obligations to the profession and ensure constitutional representation for their clients.
Ace M. Factor, Lessons from New Orleans: A Stronger Role for Public Defenders in Spurring Indigent Defense Reform, 66 Duke L.J. 1565 (2017)
Available at: http://scholarship.law.duke.edu/dlj/vol66/iss7/3