The Florida Supreme Court embraced justice for all Floridians on Thursday when it reaffirmed the right of the poor to adequate legal counsel. The court ruled that trial courts can stop assigning public defenders to new cases when the Legislature has provided so little money that the result is overwhelming case loads. The ruling, 5-2, is a triumph of reality over the wishful thinking of legislative leadership. At some point, the cost of justice denied is more than any dollars and cents the Legislature wants to save.
Thursday's ruling was a delayed victory for retired Miami-Dade Public Defender Bennett Brummer and his successor and former chief assistant, Carlos J. Martinez. Months before leaving office in 2008, Brummer made headlines by asking a circuit court for permission to turn away future indigent defendants and have them assigned to private attorneys. Brummer argued he did not have the resources to provide new clients with the adequate legal representation they are entitled to under the Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
Brummer's office had seen a 29 percent increase in criminal cases over the previous four years, but the Legislature's recession-fueled budget cutting had resulted in 12.6 percent less money for his trial costs — even as lawmakers approved new tax cuts each year. The Miami-Dade public defender's attorneys averaged 400 noncapital felony cases a year — twice as many as the highest recommendation of professional legal organizations. Yet the state objected to Brummer's effort on several grounds, including that prospective relief was not allowed under the state's conflict of interest statute. The state argued there needed to be evidence that a specific defendant's rights were at risk.
But the Supreme Court's majority didn't buy it, calling the statistics a "damning indictment of the poor quality of trial representation" available to indigent defendants in Brummer's circuit. The opinion written by Justice Peggy Quince cited the U.S. Supreme Court, which has acknowledged that since such a large portion of criminal cases result in plea deals and not a trial, "it is insufficient to simply point to the guarantee of a fair trail as a backstop that inoculates any errors in the pretrial process."
In other words, defendants have not received adequate representation if their relationship with a public defender amounts to no more than relaying plea offers from the prosecutor on the courthouse bench as a judge impatiently waits.
To most Floridians, that would seem obvious. No fee-paying client would be satisfied with an attorney who failed to learn a case before advising a client on options, be it a plea or trial. Yet in the Miami-Dade circuit, at least, that was routine for defendants who could not afford to pay for their own counsel.
Justice is supposed to be blind, even to a defendant's financial means. It's the Legislature job to make sure there is money enough to ensure that standard is met.