At a gathering on the Capitol steps marking the 51st anniversary of the Gideon v. Wainwright Supreme Court decision that secured defendants the right to competent and vigorous legal defense, the ACLU and a group of public defenders lambasted the state of Idaho's public defense system.
"The Sixth Amendment doesn't get respect here," said Kootenai County Public Defender John Adams.
ACLU Idaho Executive Director Monica Hopkins contrasted Governor C.L. "Butch" Otter's statement in support of the Second Amendment—the right to bear arms—upon signing the so-called Guns on Campus bill into law with the legislature's thin financial support of public defenders who protect the Sixth Amendment of the Constitution, which details rights related to criminal prosecutions. According to Hopkins and a number of public defenders who spoke at the gathering, growing caseloads, scant funding and a paucity of public defenders have added up to a public defense crisis.
"It is really interesting that the governor counts the Second Amendment, but you don't have to uphold the Sixth Amendment. He continues to be silent on this issue," she said.
In contrast to high-profile crimes and press-friendly courtroom battles, Adams said public defenders' efforts on small cases like theft, DUIs and domestic assaults are where the Constitutional guarantee to a fair and speedy trial are enforced.
"This is important to our communities. These small cases are what affect the quality of our lives," he said.
Public defenders are charged with mounting defenses for defendants who cannot pay for their own legal counsel, and their clients can be individuals whose trials in the court of public opinion ended long before their counterparts in the courtroom. Stacy Depew, a contract public defender in Jerome County, said she has a ready answer when people ask her why she does what she does.
"Why am I a public defender? Because every single person deserves a vigorous defender. I don't do it for the money; I don't do it for the fame. Even those people charged with heinous crimes are more than what they are on paper," she said.