NACDL - Systemic Litigation

Systemic Litigation

Across the country there have been a number of class action lawsuits challenging public defense delivery systems which fail to ensure constitutionally effective representation. In many instances these lawsuits have been the catalyst for change, calling attention to the injustices that occur when states fail to fulfill their 6th Amendment obligations. 

Systemic Litigation

Major systemic litigation cases (in chronological order based on date of filing)

DUNCAN v. MICHIGAN
CITATION 795 NW2d 820 (2011)
FILING DATE & JURISDICTION Feb. 2007, State Court (Ingham County, MI) 
CASE STATUS Closed by Voluntary Dismissal by plaintiffs 2013
KEY ISSUES Class action suit alleging the state abdicated its constitutional and statutory obligation to provide public defense by delegating the responsibility to the counties without providing adequate funding or oversight.
OUTCOME While the case was pending, Michigan established an Indigent Defense Advisory Committee which recommended significant changes to the system. In 2013 MI passed legislation implementing state-wide reforms.
AMICUS NACDL Amicus filed 2010
CASE MATERIALS View full case materials and all amicus filings 

HURRELL-HARRING v. STATE OF NEW YORK
CITATION 930 N.E.2d 217 (N.Y.2010)
FILING DATE & JURISDICTION Nov. 2007, State Court (Albany County, NY)
CASE STATUS Settled, 2014, Settlement Agreement Terms. 2016 and 2017 Legislation passed to enact settlement terms.
KEY ISSUES Class action suit alleged 5 named New York counties’ public defense systems violated state and federal constitution. Allegations included lack of representation at critical stages of case; insufficient training, supervision, and performance standards; insufficient resources; lack of adequate compensation; and lack of independence.
OUTCOME Case permitted to proceed as class action seeking prospective relief on claim of constructive denial of counsel due to systemic deficiencies. Following DOJ filing a statement of interest in support of plaintiffs, a settlement was reached implementing significant reforms. Settlement Agreement
 AMICUS NACDL Amicus filed 2010   DOJ Statement of Interest 
CASE MATERIALS View full case materials 

COLORADO DEFENSE BAR v. HICKENLOOPER
CITATION  
FILING DATE & JURISDICTION Dec. 2010, Federal Court (D. CO)
CASE STATUS Closed by Voluntary Dismissal (2013)
KEY ISSUES

Suit to declare Colorado statute 16-7-301(4) unconstitutional as it requires an indigent accused to speak with the prosecutor before the court would consider appointing counsel.

OUTCOME While case was pending the legislature repealed the statute and authorized funds to hire additional public defenders.
CASE MATERIALS View full case materials

WILBUR v. CITY OF MOUNT VERNON (WA)
CITATION 989 F.Supp.2d 112 (W.D.Wash.2013)
FILING DATE & JURISDICTION

June 2011,State Court (Skagit County), Def.removed to Federal Court (WD WA)

CASE STATUS

Closed, ruling in favor of plaintiffs

KEY ISSUES

Plaintiffs alleged the two municipalities (Burlington and Mt. Vernon) through their failure to adequately fund and monitor the contracts used to provide public defense services, systematically denied indigent defendants their right to counsel under the federal and state constitutions.

RULING & CONCLUSIONS

The District Court found indigent defendants were systematically deprived of the assistance of counsel through the municipalities’ deliberate choices regarding funding, contracting, and monitoring of their public defense systems. The Court recognized having counsel present is not sufficient, clients are entitled to a meaningful relationship with their attorney.

AMICUS DOJ Statement of Interest 
CASE MATERIALS View full case materials  

KUREN v. LUZERNE COUNTY (Flora v. Luzerne County)(PA)
CITATION 146 A.3d 715 (Pa.2016)
FILING DATE & JURISDICTION April 2012, State Court (Luzerne County, PA)
CASE STATUS  Pending
KEY ISSUES Initially brought by the Luzerne Public Defender (Flora v. Luzerne), the case asserted the failure to adequately fund the public defender system prevented defenders from providing constitutionally effective representation.
RULINGS  In 2016, after Flora’s departure from the public defender’s office the case, the PA Supreme Court held current and prospective clients had a right to pursue the case under a theory of a constructive denial of counsel because systemic deficiencies create an imminent risk of violating the right to counsel.
AMICUS NACDL-PACDL Amicus filed 2015 DOJ Brief in Support of Plaintiffs
CASE MATERIALS View full case materials Flora v. Luzerne 

N.P. v. STATE OF GEORGIA
CITATION  
FILING DATE & JURISDICTION Jan. 2014, State Court (Fulton County, GA)
CASE STATUS Settled by Consent Decree (2015)
KEY ISSUES Alleges juveniles were actually and constructively denied their right to counsel in Cordele County due to systemic deficiencies.
OUTCOME while the case was pending, Cordele County entered into a Consent Decree implementing a series of reforms targeted at ensuring juveniles are represented by specially trained juvenile defenders, and requiring juveniles speak with counsel before being able to waive their right to an attorney.
DOCUMENTS DOJ Statement of Interest    DOJ Consent Decree
CASE MATERIALS View full case materials

BAIREFOOT V. CITY OF BEAUFORT (SC)
CITATION  
FILING DATE & JURISDICTION 2017 Federal court (South Carolina)
CASE STATUS Settled by Consent Decree (2019)
KEY ISSUES Alleges systemic deficiencies stemming from the jurisdiction's municipal courts prosecuting and jailing of individuals without providing counsel. 
OUTCOME Settlement reached in which accused will be notified of their right to counsel and have counsel appolinted absent a specific, knowing waiver of the right to counsel. The jurisdictions will partner with an area public defender's office to provide primary representation
DOCUMENTS Settlement Order
CASE MATERIALS Complaint

PHILLIPS v. STATE OF CALIFORNIA
CITATION  
FILING DATE & JURISDICTION July 2015, State (Fresno County, CA)
CASE STATUS Pending discovery in trial court
KEY ISSUES

Assert violation of state and federal constitution causing constructive denial of counsel because defenders have an excessive caseload which bars their providing meaningful representation. Allegations include failure to adequately fund and monitor public defense services in the county.

OUTCOME On March 12, 2016, the trial court denied motions by the state and county to dismiss the case. The state filed a petition for writ of mandamus seeking review of the decision, which the Court of Appeal denied.
CASE MATERIALS View full case materials 

TUCKER v. IDAHO
CITATION  
FILING DATE & JURISDICTION June 2015, State Court (4th Judicial District, ID)
CASE STATUS Pending request by trial court for interlocutory appeal to the Idaho Supreme Court
KEY ISSUES Alleges state and federal constitutional violations of the right to counsel because the state’s public defense system is overburdened and under resourced, and lack workload, performance, and training standards.
RULINGS Following the granting and then vacating of the state’s motion to dismiss, the case was returned to the trial court for a hearing on the merits. A class seeking prospective relief was certified. The trial court denied cross-motions for summary judgment and requested the ID Supreme Court conduct an interlocutory appeal on the question of what standard the plaintiff will have to meet to prevail on their systemic challenge.
AMICUS NACDL Amicus  DOJ Amicus on Behalf of Tucker
CASE MATERIALS View full case materials and all amicus filings 

ALLEN v. EDWARDS (LA)
CITATION  
FILING DATE & JURISDICTION Feb. 2017 State Court (East Baton Rouge, LA)
CASE STATUS Pending
KEY ISSUES Asserts constructive denial of right to counsel by state’s failure to establish an effective state public defense system. Allegations center on lack of timely appointment of counsel which prevent meaningful investigation, lack of pretrial release advocacy, and lack of support for plea negotiations or trial preparations. The suit highlights the disproportionate impact this is having on African Americans who are overrepresented in all stages of the state’s criminal legal system.
RULINGS Case is pending, with the court granting class certification in 2018. In 2019 the court denied the state’s motion for summary judgment and the court of appeals denied the state’s appeal of the issue.
CASE MATERIALS View full case materials

DALTON v. BARRETT (fka CHURCH v. STATE OF MISSOURI)
CITATION 2019 WL 954982, Dalton v. Barrett (July 12, 2019)
FILING DATE & JURISDICTION

Mar. 2017 State Court (removed by Defendants to federal court WD MO)

CASE STATUS Pending
KEY ISSUES

Allegation of actual and constructive denial of the right to counsel and ineffective assistance of counsel stemming from chronic underfunding and excessive caseloads. Includes allegations of inadequate training and supervision, excessive delays and pretrial detention, and uncounseled pleas.
*Case name changed from Church v. State to Dalton v. Barrett, when court ruled Church lacked standing to proceed and State was dismissed as a named defendant)

RULINGS May 13, 2019 a Joint Motion for Consent Judgment was filed, which conceeded the plaintiffs were likley to succeed on the merits because the MSPD is "grossly overburdened" and systemically denies defendants of competent counsel. The AG's office moved to intervene. On July 12, 2019, the motion to interverne was denied. The Court did grant leave for the AG's Office to file an amicus relating to the proposed consent judgment.
CASE MATERIALS View full case materials 

BROWN V. LEXINGTION COUNTY (SC)
CITATION 2018 Wl 1556189
FILING DATE & JURISDICTION

June 2017 Federal Court (D. SC)

CASE STATUS Pending
KEY ISSUES

Class action alleging the county routinely violates the right to counsel by use of its Default Payment Policy, whereby individuals are arrested and jailed for non-payment of fees and fines without counsel. The suit also alleges the county’s practices fail to consider the individual’s ability to pay in violation of the equal protection and due process clauses.

RULINGS

While the suit was pending the SC Supreme Court issued a memorandum to magistrate judges addressing these practices. The County moved for summary judgment, asserting, among other claims, the Court’s memo mooted the issue. The Motion was denied. The County has appealed that ruling, which is pending before the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals.

CASE MATERIALS View full case materials 

 


Systemic Litigation Relating to Pretrial Release

DOJ STATEMENTS OF INTEREST


DOJ Civil Rights Division: Dear Colleague Letter (2016)

DOJ letter to state and local judges regarding the unconstitutional practice of assessing fes and fines that fail to take into account an individual's ability to pay. The letter includes recommendations to help ensure court practices do not violate the guarantees of due process and equal protection including:

  • Courts must not incarcerate a person fo non-payment without first conducting an indigency determination and establishing any failure to pay was willful;
  • Courts must consider alternatives to incarceration for non-payment;
  • Courts must not condition access to a hearing on the prepayment of fines or fees;
  • Courts must provide meaningful notice, and when appropriate, counsel, when enforcing fines and fees
  • Courts must not use arrest warrants or license suspension as a means of coercing payment when an individual has not ben afforded constitutionally adequate procedural protections
  • Courts must not employ bail practices that cause indigent defendants to remain incarcerated solely because they cannot afford to pay for their release; and
  • Courts must safeguard against unconstitutional practices by court staff and private contractors.

Additional Resources

More on Public Defender Caseloads