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Restraining Excessive Defender Caseloads: The ABA Ethics Committee Requires Action
By Norman Lefstein,Georgia Vagenas
The most influential ethics body in the United States has now told criminal defense lawyers that having an excessive number of cases can never be an excuse for failing to provide “competent” and “diligent” representation to their clients.1 As stated in Formal Opinion 06-441 by the American Bar Association’s Standing Committee on Ethics and Professional Responsibility (“ABA Ethics Committee”), “[t]he [Model] Rules [of Professional Conduct] provide no exception for lawyers who represent indigent persons charged with crimes.”2 Until this opinion, the ABA Ethics Committee had never dealt with the pervasive national problem of excessive caseloads of public defenders and other lawyers who represent the indigent accused in criminal proceedings.
In cases where the Supreme Court has held that the U.S. Constitution requires that counsel be provided,3 excessive defender caseloads have been cited repeatedly as a major impediment to effective representation. In December 2004, for example, in Gideon
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