TALLAHASSEE — The Florida Supreme Court sided with public defenders Thursday in a ruling that said lawyers who defend the poor can seek to refuse new cases if their workload and limited money would keep them from providing defendants adequate representation.
The ruling settles a yearslong dispute after the Miami-Dade County public defender in 2008 asked a circuit judge for the right to refuse third-degree felony cases. At the time, lawyers working for the Miami-Dade public defender's office had an average of more than 400 cases. The judge granted the request, but the state attorney's office appealed the decision and won.
The Supreme Court's decision overturns the appeals court ruling.
"Third-degree felony attorneys often have as many as fifty cases set for trial in one week because of the excessive caseload," the court wrote in its ruling. "Attorneys are routinely unable to interview clients, conduct investigations, take depositions, prepare mitigation, or counsel clients about pleas offered at arraignment."
The court called the situation "a damning indictment of the poor quality of trial representation that is being afforded indigent defendants."
The Supreme Court did ask the Miami-Dade Circuit Court to assess whether conditions today are still excessive.
A lawyer representing the Florida Prosecuting Attorneys Association didn't immediately return a call seeking comment.
The ruling comes 50 years after a landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision in another Florida case that said states must provide lawyers for impoverished criminal defendants.
The U.S. Supreme in 1963 ordered a new trial for Clarence Earl Gideon because a judge denied his request for a court-appointed lawyer before he was convicted of breaking into a Panama City pool room and stealing $65 from a vending machine as well as some soft drinks, beer and wine. Upon retrial, Gideon was acquitted — with help from a lawyer.
The Gideon vs. Wainwright opinion said the Sixth Amendment guarantee of legal representation applied to states as well as the federal government. It led to the creation of public defender systems across the nation.
But in Florida, and other places, public defenders have long complained that they don't have enough money to do their jobs.