News Release ~ 12/05/2013

Federal Court Finds Systemic Violation of Indigent Defendants’ Sixth Amendment Right to Counsel

Washington, DC (December 5, 2013) – Yesterday, in the case of Wilbur v. City of Mount Vernon, et al., one of a number of cases challenging systemic deficiencies in the delivery of indigent defense services across the nation, the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington State found systemic violations of defendants’ Sixth Amendment right to counsel by the Cities of Mount Vernon and Burlington, Washington, and ordered injunctive relief. A copy of the decision is available here. On August 14, 2013, the United States Department of Justice filed a Statement of Interest in this case. While not taking a position on the merits of plaintiffs’ claims in this particular case, the Department of Justice made very clear that “The United States has an interest in ensuring that all jurisdictions – federal, state, and local – are fulfilling their obligation under the Constitution to provide effective assistance of counsel to individuals facing criminal charges who cannot afford an attorney, as required by Gideon v. Wainwright, 372 U.S. 335 (1963).”

In its decision yesterday, the court found that “indigent criminal defendants in Mount Vernon and Burlington are systematically deprived of the assistance of counsel at critical stages of the prosecution and that municipal policymakers have made deliberate choices regarding the funding, contracting, and monitoring of the public defense system that directly and predictably caused that deprivation.” After setting forth detailed injunctive relief aimed at addressing the significant problems with the indigent defense delivery systems in these jurisdictions, the court noted that this is the 50th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s landmark decision in Gideon v. Wainwright, the seminal case cited by the Department of Justice in its Statement of Interest to this court, and concluded:

“It has been fifty years since the United States Supreme Court first recognized that the accused has a right to the assistance of counsel for his defense in all criminal prosecutions and that the state courts must appoint counsel for indigent defendants who cannot afford to retain their own lawyer. The notes of freedom and liberty that emerged from Gideon’s trumpet a half a century ago cannot survive if that trumpet is muted and dented by harsh fiscal measures that reduce the promise to a hollow shell of a hallowed right.”

NACDL Executive Director Norman L. Reimer said: “Not only was this case historic for the action taken by the Department of Justice in filing its important Statement of Interest last August, but also in its holding it is significant as it puts all jurisdictions – local, state and federal -- across the nation on notice that the adequate funding and resourcing of the defense function is not an elective budget line item. It is a core constitutional mandate that can, and must, be enforced by the courts.”

Recent NACDL research reports in this area include:

  • Minor Crimes, Massive Waste: The Terrible Toll of America’s Broken Misdemeanor Courts 
  • Three Minute Justice: Haste and Waste in Florida’s Misdemeanor Courts 
  • National Indigent Defense Reform: The Solution is Multifaceted (a joint report with the ABA) 
  • Part I – Rationing Justice: The Underfunding of Assigned Counsel Systems 

These and other NACDL reports are available online at www.nacdl.org/reports

Contact Information

Ivan Dominguez, Director of Public Affairs and Communications (202) 465-7662 or idominguez@nacdl.org

The National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers is the preeminent organization advancing the mission of the criminal defense bar to ensure justice and due process for persons accused of crime or wrongdoing. A professional bar association founded in 1958, NACDL's approximately 10,000 direct members in 28 countries – and 90 state, provincial and local affiliate organizations totaling up to 40,000 attorneys – include private criminal defense lawyers, public defenders, military defense counsel, law professors and judges committed to preserving fairness and promoting a rational and humane criminal justice system.

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