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.