Thousands of defendants left without representation at critical points in their prosecution

BOISE, Idaho – The ACLU, the ACLU of Idaho, and the global law firm Hogan Lovells filed a class action lawsuit against the state of Idaho asking the court to force the state to fix its unconstitutional system of public defense, which deprives thousands of Idahoans of their Sixth Amendment right to adequate legal representation and withholds the resources needed by public defenders throughout the state to effectively represent those prosecuted by state government.

“Tens of thousands of Idahoans don’t make enough money to afford a private attorney, and for too long, they have been denied their Sixth Amendment right to counsel. Elected officials have deliberately avoided deploying the funding and meaningful supervision that they know we need to actually fix Idaho’s disastrous system of public defense,” said Leo Morales, acting executive director of the ACLU of Idaho. “The state of Idaho must provide the resources and oversight to ensure hard-working public defenders can adequately represent the most vulnerable in our courtrooms.”

As the complaint details, plaintiffs in this lawsuit have had to go before a judge for bail hearings, and even to enter pleas of guilty and be sentenced, without a lawyer present. As a result, these defendants faced bail amounts too high for them to afford and weeks or months in jail. They haven’t been able to confer with their overburdened attorneys about the strengths and weaknesses of the prosecutor’s case, or learn what evidence the state plans to use against them. Due to inadequate resources, many have not had their cases sufficiently investigated, if at all, and have had no access to expert witnesses to help defend against the state’s allegations.

“Before the government can take away a person’s freedom, our Constitution requires that the case against the defendant to be put to the test. In Idaho, public defenders do not have the support and resources necessary to fulfill this critical role in our system of justice,” said Jason D. Williamson of the ACLU’s Criminal Law Reform Project. “The state’s public defense structure is so defective that it puts the integrity of the state’s entire criminal justice system in jeopardy, not to mention the liberty and livelihoods of thousands.”

Five years have passed since a report by the National Legal Aid and Defender Association exposed enormous and repeated failures in the administration of Idaho’s public defender system. Yet the state government has made only meager reforms since then.

Public defense is the state government’s responsibility, but in Idaho the state has abdicated its responsibility to counties without providing any meaningful funding for trial-level defense, foisting an unfunded mandate onto those counties, most of which have very limited revenue sources. Nineteen of the state’s 44 counties pay attorneys a fixed fee to represent defendants who can’t afford representation, regardless of the number of clients ultimately assigned to the attorney, or the seriousness of the charges against them. This creates an obvious incentive to spend as little time and money on each client as possible—so much so that the Idaho legislature amended its public defense statutes in 2014 to prohibit such contracts. Yet the practice continues.

The workloads for Idaho public defenders are extremely high. In at least six Idaho counties, each public defender’s workload is appropriate for more than two attorneys, according to a December 2014 analysis by Idaho’s Legislative Services Office. The state’s 44 counties have no shared standards for caseloads, training, or performance required of public defenders.
After the National Legal Aid and Defender Association released its report on Idaho’s public defense failures, the state first created a special governor’s subcommittee, then a special legislative committee, and then a state commission tasked with studying and addressing the problem. None of these bodies has established enforceable state-level oversight; instituted state-wide standards for uniform workload, performance, and training; or allocated significant funding to public defense. The lawsuit asks the court to order the state to implement such reforms.

More information about the ACLU of Idaho’s work on public defense is available at:
More information about the ACLU’s work on public defense is available at:
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