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May 23, 2013

Florida Supreme Court rules local public defenders may withdraw from cases based on excessive caseloads

As reported in this local article, headlined "Supreme Court to allow public defenders to quit cases due to work load," the top court in Florida today issued a notable opinion concerning the challenges facing and authority given to local public defenders. Here are the basics from the press account:

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.

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 3rd 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....

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.

The full 45-page majority opinion and the six-page dissent referenced above can both be accessed at this link.

May 23, 2013 at 05:06 PM | Permalink

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