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Federal Court Judge Issues Ruling Protecting Constitutional Right to Counsel

December 05, 2013

The US District Court issued its memorandum opinion today in Wilbur et al. v. City of Mount Vernon, ruling that the cities of Mount Vernon and Burlington have failed to provide adequate defense services to indigent defendants. The Court found indigent defendants in those Cities have had “virtually no relationship with their assigned counsel and could not fairly be said to have been ‘represented’ by them at all.”

Judge Lasnik granted comprehensive injunctive relief, including immediate measures that require the Cities to re-evaluate their existing public defense contract and hire a supervisor who will be responsible for overseeing and evaluating the Cities’ public defense system. Among other things, the Cities must undertake measures to ensure that they are providing “actual representation of and assistance to individual criminal defendants, including reasonable investigation and advocacy and, where appropriate, the adversarial testing of the prosecutor’s case.” The supervisor will report on the Cities’ efforts and progress every six months for up to three years.

TMLG attorney Toby Marshall—along with the ACLU, Perkins Coie and The Scott Law Group—brought this class action on behalf of three indigent defendants in June 2011. Plaintiffs alleged that the cities of Mount Vernon and Burlington have been systematically failing to provide assistance of counsel to low-income persons who face criminal charges in municipal court. The right to counsel is a civil right guaranteed by the Sixth Amendment of the United States Constitution and the Washington State Constitution.

In his concluding statement, Judge Lasnik eloquently characterized the importance of protecting the right to counsel and the precedent set by the 1963 landmark ruling inGideon v. Wainwright:

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.

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