Wash. Public Defender: New Caseload Standards “Absurd”

Jun 29, 2012

Shocking cases of inadequate public defense in Washington have led the state Supreme Court to take an unusual step. The high court has imposed a mandatory cap on the number of cases lawyers for the poor can take. You might assume public defenders would be cheering – finally they’re going to get relief. But in fact some lawyers are downright offended and angry. Correspondent Austin Jenkins profiles one.

It’s a Wednesday afternoon at Lewis County District Court. Out in the hallway, attorney Joseph P. Enbody is meeting with clients.

Enbody: “Are you Ms. Tran?”

Kim Tran got stopped for driving with a suspended license. She’s had phone conversations with her attorney - Enbody’s son - before today, but even so she asks a startling question: is this a felony charge?

Enbody: “No, a felony is something that they could send you to prison for.”

This is a misdemeanor. And Enbody has good news for Tran.

Enbody: “The prosecutor has recommended that there be no jail time.”

In the span of less than ten minutes, Tran decides she will plead guilty when she enters the courtroom for her pretrial hearing.

Enbody: “Think you know what you’re doing? Okay.”

On this day Enbody – who’s a contract public defender - is juggling six of his own cases plus three for his son, who’s away. They’re all misdemeanors.

Enbody: “This is a driving suspended charge. This is a driving suspended charge.”

But you see Enbody’s got a problem. Beginning in September of 2013, the Washington Supreme Court will impose a cap on public defender caseloads. By Enbody’s own count, he handles more misdemeanor cases in a year than will be allowed.

Enbody: “My guess is that I was about a hundred over.”

The new caps will allow lawyers for the poor to handle a maximum of 150 felonies a year or 400 misdemeanors. Or some mix of the two. You could see this as an act of mercy for beleaguered public defenders. But that’s not how Enbody sees it. Just listen to the adjectives he uses to describe these new limits.

Enbody: “Ridiculous, patently absurd obviously, idiotic, flawed.”

Enbody says, look, he’s been doing this work for forty years. He knows what he can handle. Plus, he’s paid by the case – so these caps are money out of his pocket.

Enbody: “Somebody up there in Supreme Court has said you’re not allowed to work any harder and make any more money than we allow you to. I think that’s wrong.”

Boman: “Caseloads are generally understood to be the best way of assuring effective assistance of counsel.”

Marc Boman is a lawyer in Seattle who chairs the Bar Association’s Counsel on Public Defense. Boman argues without caps, public defenders can get overburdened and inevitably cut corners. Currently, the ACLU of Washington is suing the cities of Burlington and Mt. Vernon, north of Seattle. The allegation is two contract public defenders handled more than two-thousand misdemeanor cases in a year. In 2010 the Washington Supreme Court ruled in a case of a juvenile who pleaded guilty to a sex offense after meeting with his court-appointed attorney for all of an hour. The youth was ultimately allowed to withdraw his plea and the charges were dismissed. Attorney Marc Boman compares caseload caps to speed limits on the road.

Boman: “We all know people who say that they can drive at 75mph safely, but we’re all expected to not drive above the posted speed limit even though some people think they can.”

Back at Lewis County District Court, Kim Tran is done pleading guilty for driving with a suspended license. I ask her if she’s a satisfied customer of the public defense system.

Tran: “Just the fact that they’re representing me, I’m very thankful.”

But Tran says she would have liked a bit more legal guidance. And as for caseload caps, she supports the idea.

Tran: “Because they just don’t have enough time and the bandwidth.”

Public defender Joe Enbody bristles at the suggestion his firm is not giving poor clients all they deserve. He says he believes in standards, but advocates say standards haven’t worked and now it’s time for hard and fast caseload limits to improve public defense in Washington.

Copyright 2012 Northwest Public Radio