Posts Tagged ‘legal aid’

Statistical ranking of defense lawyers? Maybe, but not this way.

Wednesday, January 2nd, 2013

It’s an intriguing notion: that one can objectively assess the relative effectiveness of a given lawyer. With hard data, and sound analysis. In the real world, it’s nigh impossible to tell how good a lawyer really is. You can look on Avvo and see what people here and there may have subjectively thought about him, but that doesn’t tell you whether any other lawyer would have done as well (or been just as dissatisfying). You can ask around and get a sense of what other lawyers generally think of him, but that’s just as subjective. There’s really nothing out there to tell you for sure whether that lawyer gets better-than-average results or not.

So Wake Forest professors Ronald Wright and Ralph Peeples — to their great credit — tried to see if it could be done. In their recent paper, “Criminal Defense Lawyer Moneyball: A Demonstration Project,” they conclude that it can be done. They may even be right about that. But not from the data they gathered, sadly.

[Warning: The internet’s gonna (more…)

Instead of coming up with an original idea, we prefer to tell you why yours is wrong.

Tuesday, September 28th, 2010


Everyone knows that the indigent defense system in this country is broken.  The courts have mandated that every jurisdiction has to pay for indigent criminal defendants to get a lawyer.  It is required.  The vast majority of criminal defendants are indigent (or have no legitimate source of income, and so can pass for indigent).  So the taxpayer winds up paying for the lawyer for most criminal defendants.  This results public defender agencies that are understaffed, underpaid and overworked.  Or assigned counsel plans, where private attorneys are assigned to indigent defendants, and get paid a pittance.

Sadly, a lot of indigent defenders are either inexperienced or not very good at it.  Both kinds of indigent practice do attract fantastic lawyers who aren’t in it for the money, but they’re in the minority.  Indigent practice also attracts lawyers just starting out, who are willing to forgo a bigger paycheck for more experience.  And both kinds of practice attract lawyers for whom this is really their only way to make a living — for whatever reason, they don’t compete in the market for paying clients.

Also, indigent defenders tend to be insanely overworked.  Those who rely on assigned-counsel work for their pay often must take on an overload of cases just to make ends meet.  And those working full-time for a public defender’s outfit have an overload of cases whether they want one or not.  This has a predictable effect on the quality of their work, their ability to deal with (or recognize) non-routine cases, their resources to investigate and prepare, and pretty much everything else.

Furthermore, neither approach gives the defendants themselves any say in who gets assigned to represent them.  If they don’t get along, or there’s someone else who could have done a better job, then too bad.

There’s no economic pressure for indigent lawyers to do better.  If they do better or worse, they still get paid the same.  They’re still getting that next indigent client, whether they want one or not.

Finally, even with the abysmal pay, the cost to municipalities and states is still enormous.  There’s a lot of this kind of work to be done, and those nickels and dimes add up fast.

What to do about it?

Well, over at the Cato Institute (we’re big fans of Cato), professors Stephen J. Schulhofer and David Friedman have published a paper called “Reforming Indigent Defense: How Free Market Principles Can Help to Fix a Broken System.”  Go ahead and read it; we’ll wait.

For the TL;DR crowd, Profs. Schulhofer & Friedman propose that all present forms of indigent defense be abolished.  Get rid of public defenders and assigned counsel and all permutations thereof.  In their place, simply give defendants vouchers that they can use to pay the defense attorney of their choice.

Brilliant, no?  Defendants can choose whomever they wish to defend them.  Market forces will drive out the crappy lawyers currently impeding justice for the impoverished.  There will be no more of the crushing caseloads that practically guarantee malpractice.  Fewer innocents will be wrongly convicted, because they’ll have more experienced and talented representation, and there will be more resources and time available for rooting it out.  It’s a winner for everyone!

Well… about that… (more…)

The System is Broken: NY Ct. of Appeals Allows Class Action over Indigent Counsel Failings

Thursday, May 6th, 2010


Gideon v. Wainwright, 372 U.S. 335 (1963) guarantees that criminal defendants who cannot afford a lawyer must be provided one by the state. In a groundbreaking decision today, New York’s highest court ruled that “serious questions have arisen in this and other jurisdictions as to whether Gideon‘s mandate is being met in practice.” And these questions are significant enough to warrant a class action against the State of New York by criminal defendants left to suffer the consequences.

In a lengthy opinion (viewable here), Chief Judge Lippman goes out of his way to point out that this is not a Strickland issue about whether defendants are getting ineffective assistance of counsel. The issue is whether the state is denying them counsel, period.

In order to allow the class action to go forward, the court had to find that there’s a basis for that suit, that looked at in the light most favorable to the plaintiffs they actually have a case. So what did the court see here?

Judges are deciding who is or is not “indigent” for the purposes of assigning counsel, and there are no standards for that determination. There’s no rhyme or reason to it. There’s no consistency. People who perhaps should be getting a public defender wind up never getting a lawyer at all. There’s a huge Due Process and Equal Protection violation right here.

Defendants are arraigned without having a lawyer present. Bail gets set in amounts they could never afford. And they wind up languishing in jail without representation, even for minor offenses. They lose their jobs in the meantime, and lose their homes when they can’t pay the rent, and their families suffer enormously.

Defendants appear in significant court appearances without counsel. They enter into pleas without a lawyer. This despite the clear language of CPL 180.10(5) forbidding a court from proceeding without counsel, unless the defendant has knowingly agreed to it.

In instances where lawyers do get appointed, they’re incompetent. They don’t confer with their clients. They don’t learn the case. There’s a different lawyer at each proceeding, just as unfamiliar with the case as the previous one. They don’t respond to client inquiries however urgent. They either miss court appearances, or if they do appear they’re unprepared to proceed.

The appointed lawyers waive important rights, without first conferring with their clients and getting authorization. They make “virtually no efforts on their nominal clients’ behalf,” as the opinion puts it.

“Actual representation assumes a certain basic representational relationship.” The facts here show the opposite, that there are “serious questions as to whether any such relationship may be really said to have existed.” In other words, counsel may have been appointed, but there was never any real attorney-client relationship. This is not ineffective representation — it is the absence of representation. (more…)

Death Row: Court OK’s Federal Defenders for State Clemency Hearings

Wednesday, April 1st, 2009


In an unusually mixed decision for the consensus-driven Roberts Court, the Supreme Court today ruled that federal public defenders can represent death-penalty clients at state clemency hearings. The more liberal justices said federal defenders could do so, but only if the state hearings followed a federal proceeding. Justice Thomas went further, saying that the law as written does not impose such a restriction, and in fact federal defenders would be allowed in any state capital case. Chief Justice Roberts agreed with the majority, but only insofar as the subsequent state proceedings are extra-judicial. Only Justices Scalia and Alito felt that federal defenders shouldn’t be allowed at state proceedings, period.

To get the result they wanted, the majority clearly made hash of the relevant statute, interpreting parts one way but other parts the opposite way, and then adding new interpretations to undo the absurdities that could have then resulted. Roberts allowed himself to justify the same outcome on a fine-point quibble. Only Thomas, Scalia and Alito had truly intellectually honest positions, but they didn’t fit the policy which the Court sought to advance. Once again, it was a case of making the law fit the Justices’ policy wishes — an undercurrent that often explains appellate decisionmaking.

At issue here was 18 U.S.C. § 3599, which provides for appointed counsel in federal proceedings. These lawyers are paid for out of the federal budget, when a client cannot afford a private attorney, and usually only handle matters in federal court. State court matters are typically handled by lawyers appointed and paid for by the state. Among other things, § 3599 sets forth what kind of matters a federally appointed lawyer can handle.

In this case, Harbison v. Bell, Edward Harbison was sentenced to death back in 1983 (yes, 26 years ago!) for beating a 62-year-old woman’s head to a pulp with a vase, after she surprised him while he was burgling her house.

Skipping over years of appellate back-and-forth, we come to a 2005 habeas petition in federal court. The Federal Defender Services of Eastern Tennessee were appointed to represent Harbison during this habeas proceeding. The petition was ultimately denied.

That having failed, Harbison tried for a clemency hearing in Tennessee state court. But he couldn’t get appointed counsel for such a hearing. The Tennessee Supreme Court had held that state law did not allow state-appointed lawyers in clemency hearings.

So Harbison’s federal defender filed a motion, asking that she be allowed to include the state clemency proceeding as part of her federally-compensated representation.

It wasn’t a huge stretch to ask for this, as §3599 permits federal defenders to represent their clients at “proceedings for executive or other clemency as may be available.” But Tennessee is in the 6th Circuit, which had previously construed §3599 as only applying to federal proceedings. So the district court denied the motion, and the 6th Circuit affirmed.

There being a split in the circuits on this issue — the 5th, 6th and 11th saying no federal assistance at the state level, but the 8th and 10th saying it’s okay — it was no surprise that the Supreme Court granted cert. Oral arguments were held in January.

The Court’s majority opinion is fairly straightforward: the plain language of §3599 doesn’t say anything limiting its scope to federal proceedings. In fact, its reference to “or other clemency” has to mean state proceedings, because federal clemency is strictly executive.

You can’t go out and get a federal defender for a state clemency hearing, however, unless you already had that federal defender to start with. In this case, the federal defender was on the case for the habeas proceeding, and the clemency one came afterward, so it was okay. But if the order had been reversed, the Court wouldn’t have permitted it.

Justice Stevens wrote the majority decision, and got the other four more liberal Justices to go along with the whole thing. Stevens was a little muddled, though, as his reading of the statute was dramatically different from clause to clause, and thus found that parts of it only apply to federal capital defendants.

Chief Justice Roberts agreed with Stevens’ result, but not with his reasoning. Roberts agreed that the federal defenders ought to be permitted at subsequent state clemency hearings. But he did not think that the plain language of §3599 said so. Just because the federal statute didn’t come out and say it was limited to federal cases, that doesn’t mean that’s not what Congress intended. Roberts felt (and Harbison conceded) that “it is highly unlikely that Congress intended federal habeas petitioners to keep their federal counsel during subsequent state judicial proceedings.”

Roberts astutely noted, however, that §3599 does not open the door to subsequent judicial proceedings. That would be a problem, because post-habeas judicial proceedings are by definition new matters, and §3599 only mentions “subsequent stages” of the federal matter. Clemency hearings, however, are non-judicial requests for mercy from the governor or a panel. We would expect this distinction to be raised for sure in some future case.

Justice Thomas was true to form, refusing to look outside the words Congress used to seek its intent, as “our task is to apply the text, not to improve upon it,” even if that produces “very bad policy.” He therefore felt the §3599 necessarily included state clemency proceedings, because the statute applied to people challenging either state or federal convictions, and state clemency is the only clemency available for state convictions.

In fact, Thomas went beyond the majority’s reading. The majority (and Roberts) assumed that parts of §3599 must be limited to federal proceedings, at least in some respects. But under Thomas-style interpretation it must be read to provide federal counsel “to indigent defendants in every criminal action in which a defendant is charged with a crime which may be punishable by death.” (Emphasis his.)

Justices Scalia and Alito were the only holdouts, finding that Congress was only talking about federal proceedings. After pointing out the obvious befuddlement of Stevens’ argument (as one would expect Scalia to do), they pointed out that “Section 3599 was enacted as part of a bill that created a new federal capital offense, and it is perfectly reasonable to assume that a federal statute, providing federally funded counsel, applies in federal proceedings only, even where the statute contains no such express limitation.” (Emphasis Scalia’s.)

As to the “or other clemency” on which the majority hung its hat, Scalia pointed out that the very congressional history which the majority felt was important “defeats the inference the Court wishes to draw.” The phrase “or other clemency” clearly did not imply or contemplate state proceedings, but was simply and unquestionably superfluous.

Assigned Counsel are Not Government Actors? This is News?

Tuesday, March 10th, 2009


The Supreme Court ruled today that defense attorneys assigned by the state are not government actors, merely because the government assigns and pays them. They are attorneys for the defendant, and their actions are actions of the defense, not the government.

This seems like a no-brainer. Every defense attorney knows that his obligations are to his client, regardless of who is paying the bill. But apparently the Vermont Supreme Court needed to be reminded of this fact by a 7-2 decision of the Supreme Court.

Michael Brillon was arrested in 2001, and had at least six different lawyers over the next three years, before finally being convicted after a jury trial and sentenced to 12-20 years. Before trial, Brillon moved to dismiss for speedy trial violations.

The trial court said the delay was caused by Brillon, and denied the motion. The Vermont Supreme Court reversed, saying that at least two of the three years should be charged against the state, because those delays were caused court-appointed defense attorneys. The remaining year, where delays were caused by retained counsel for the defense, was not chargeable against the state.

Writing for the majority in Vermont v. Brillon, Justice Ginsburg stated that the Vermont Supreme Court’s error was in thinking that assigned counsel are state actors in the criminal justice system. Assigned counsel, just like retained counsel, act on behalf of their clients, so delays they seek are ordinarily attributable to the defense.

The Vermont court had tried to assess whether the delay was to be blamed more on the government or on the defense. Because assigned counsel were paid by the government, Vermont felt that they were government actors, so their delay should be charged to the government. But the Supreme Court was obliged to point out that an attorney is the defendant’s agent, regardless of whether the attorney is privately retained or publicly assigned.

This is such a fundamental point, it is amazing that it got this far. Justice Ginsburg took the time to explain that Vermont’s error was such a fundamental misapplication of Barker v. Wingo that the Supreme Court had to step in to correct it.

Justice Ginsburg did leave open the possibility for public defender delays to be chargeable against the state, but only when such delays are caused by a “systemic breakdown” in the public defender system, some sort of institutional problem actually attributable to the government. That wasn’t the case here.

Justices Breyer wrote a very interesting dissent, in which Justice Stevens joined, highlighting some of the unspoken realities of how the Supreme Court works. They did not disagree with the ruling itself, but rather believed that certiorari had been improvidently granted. The issues turned out to be not as clearly defined as originally presented, and there were ambiguities in the Vermont Supreme Court’s decision, so that it did not necessarily misapply Barker v. Wingo unless one wanted to read it that way. Justice Breyer basically said the Court accepted and decided this case because the majority justices wanted to, so very badly.

Public Defenders Refusing to Take New Cases

Tuesday, November 11th, 2008

Overworked public defenders

The New York Times reports on a trend of public defenders refusing to take on new cases, on the grounds that their workload is so high that they cannot effectively defend their clients. With budget cuts coming at the same time as caseloads are rising, government-appointed lawyers claim to be reaching “the breaking point.”

Right now, a lot of public defenders are starting to stand up and say, “No more: We can’t ethically handle this many cases,’ ” said David J. Carroll, director of research for the National Legal Aid and Defender Association.

Similarly, many capable attorneys decline to volunteer for indigent-defense panels (representing those for whom the public defender’s office might have a conflict of interest), because the government-funded compensation is too low — in New York only a quarter or less of typical private rates. Fewer volunteers means more work for each.

There may be something to the argument that much of this work is routine, and not particularly time-consuming. But there are only so many hours in the day, and once you get past a certain volume of cases, things are going to have to slide.

For these public defenders, time is a valuable commodity. Most of it goes to priorities like trials, hearings and court appearances, which are huge time sinks. What is left mostly goes to cranking out canned suppression motions and picking up new cases. There isn’t much time for original research, much less a thorough investigation of any given case. Potential witnesses go unidentified, or uninterviewed. Evidence goes undiscovered or unexamined.

Plea bargains, the usual result for most cases, also suffer. Prosecutors make their offers based on what they think a case is worth, which in turn is based on what the prosecutor knows about the case. Unless a defense attorney can present new evidence, or a new way of looking at the evidence, the defense attorney is going to have a hard time changing the prosecutor’s mind. But without time to develop such evidence or new ways of looking at it, the public defender can be left with few tools beyond whining and begging, which are rarely effective. The upshot is that a defendant must settle for a worse deal, because there wasn’t time to negotiate a better one.

It’s not as though prosecutors don’t share the same high caseload, and suffer the same budgetary constraints. Prosecutors also have much more work to do for a given case, as they must investigate and assess the evidence, prepare and present witnesses to grand juries, and prepare and present witnesses at hearings and trial, in addition to making the necessary court appearances, responding to the motions, etc. If both sides are under similar burdens, perhaps the injustices balance out. Or perhaps the injustices are magnified, as time-starved prosecutors similarly miss out on the chance to develop evidence or insights that would better serve the defendant.

The underlying concern is whether defendants’ interests can be adequately protected by public defenders with barely sufficient resources to go through the motions for most cases. Perhaps, and perhaps not.

It is difficult to see, however, how refusing to represent defendants at all can possibly help them. This ploy seems intended to serve nobody’s interests but those of the public defenders themselves.