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ACLU-Idaho Files Class Action Lawsuit Against State Over Public Defender System


- Interim ACLU-Idaho Executive Director Leo Morales speaking at this morning's press conference. -  - HARRISON BERRY
  • Harrison Berry
  • Interim ACLU-Idaho Executive Director Leo Morales speaking at this morning's press conference.

The Idaho American Civil Liberties Union, ACLU Foundation and other parties have filed suit against the state of Idaho and members of the Idaho State Public Defense Commission over the Idaho's public defender system.

"The current system puts defenders in an incredibly difficult situation," said interim ACLU-Idaho Executive Director Leo Morales at a press conference announcing the suit this morning. 

Public defenders provide free legal assistance to people who have been accused of crimes but cannot pay for private legal counsel. Access to a  competent legal defense is a constitutional requirement, but a report issued more than five years ago by the National Legal Aid and Defender Association that sampled Idaho counties' public defender programs found that none of the sampled counties had programs that passed constitutional muster. The suit filed today alleges little substantive progress has been made to bring those programs up to par.

Specifically, the suit alleges that Idaho public defenders face huge caseloads—sometimes in excess of what two attorneys could reasonably be expected to handle, according to ACLU-Idaho Legal Director Richard Eppink. Other challenges include "fixed-fee" contracts, lack of adequate communication with clients and the absence of "structural safeguards to protect the independence of defenders." What's more, the state of Idaho has delegated the responsibility of funding, operating and maintaining public defender systems to counties that are poorly equipped to do so. In some cases, defendants make their first court appearances without having spoken to their court-appointed counsel. 

"There are probably many [such] cases going on right now in Idaho," Eppink said.

Meanwhile, according to Morales, the burden on public defenders continues to grow: One out of every three Idahoans doesn't earn enough money to pay for a private attorney in the event that they are accused of committing a crime.

"Idaho's failure is a menace to our way of life," he said.

At this year's State of the State speech, Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter outlined the failures of the troubled public legal defense system, describing it as "unconstitutional." The object of the lawsuit is for the state to acknowledge the system's failure and for the court to issue an injunction for Idaho to address its deficiencies. 

"The goal is not to obtain money damages, although the harm has been substantial," Eppink said. 

Otter is named as a defendant in the lawsuit in his capacity as governor—his comments at the State of the State speech gave ACLU-Idaho and its allies the impetus to sue the state.

"We had been entreated [by lawmakers since the release of the NLADA report] to wait and see what happened. We felt we couldn't wait any longer," Eppink said.

ACLU-Idaho Board of Directors President Michael Bartlett said the lawsuit has far-reaching consequences for ordinary Idahoans. In many instances, Bartlett said, public defenders are outmatched by the time and resources of prosecutors. 

"What we hear is that money buys justice. The side that has all the resources is the government," he said.