Describing what it called a "damning indictment" of representation for poor criminal defendants, the Florida Supreme Court on Thursday ruled that the Miami-Dade County public defender’s office could withdraw from a large chunk of felony cases because of excessive workloads.
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, Miami-Dade Public Defender Carlos J. Martinez said. “The Court left no doubt that it is the judiciary's role to safeguard individual liberty and equal justice under law, and to ensure that our courtrooms do not become factories of injustice and inequity.”
The court divided 5-2 on the issue, with Justice Peggy Quince writing a majority opinion that said attorneys who represent defendants in third-degree felonies often have as many as 50 cases set for trial in a week.
"Clients who are not in custody are essentially unrepresented for long periods between arraignment and trial,’’ wrote Quince, who was joined in the majority by justices Barbara Pariente, R. Fred Lewis, Jorge Labarga and James E.C. Perry. "Attorneys are routinely unable to interview clients, conduct investigations, take depositions, prepare mitigation, or counsel clients about pleas offered at arraignment. Instead, the office engages in ’triage’ with the clients who are in custody or who face the most serious charges getting priority to the detriment of the other clients."
But Chief Justice Ricky Polston, joined by Justice Charles Canady, wrote a dissenting opinion that said the Miami-Dade public defender’s office had not proved harm to defendants. Polston and Canady would have upheld rulings by the Third District Court of Appeal, which rejected the public defender’s attempt to withdraw.
"Rather than proving actual (or the likelihood of imminent) violations of individual defendants’ constitutional right to effective representation, the public defender’s office presented general evidence regarding the average caseload of its attorneys, its lack of funding, and its difficulties in hiring new attorneys,’’ Polston wrote.
The issue has been in the court system since 2008 and has involved two related lawsuits — one focused on the overall public defender’s office and the other focused on an assistant public defender. The public defender sought to withdraw from representing defendants charged with third-degree felonies but not from cases involving more-serious crimes.
Because of the time that has elapsed, the Supreme Court on Thursday sent the issue back to circuit court to "determine if the circumstances still warrant granting the public defender’s motion to decline appointments in future third-degree felony cases under the standards approved in this decision."
Attorney General Pam Bondi and a statewide group of prosecutors fought the public defender’s attempt to pull out of the cases. During Supreme Court oral arguments last year, Louis Hubener, an attorney for the state, pointed to a law that bars public defenders from withdrawing from cases solely because of "inadequacy of funding or excess workload."
The Supreme Court found the law constitutional, though it disagreed about how the law should be applied.
"(The) statute should not be applied to preclude a public defender from filing a motion to withdraw based on excessive caseload or underfunding that would result in ineffective representation of indigent defendants nor to preclude a trial court from granting a motion to withdraw under those circumstances,’’ the majority opinion said.
Public defenders sometimes withdraw from representing people because of conflicts that arise, such as two clients being implicated in the same crime. The state has a system for the appointment of other attorneys to take cases when such withdrawals occur.