How many clients is too many for a public defender? That is the fundamental question about the quality of justice for indigent defendants that will be considered today by the Florida Supreme Court. The justices are being asked whether a public defender's office may obtain relief from caseloads so excessive that attorneys are unable to meet basic professional standards of representation. It is a difficult question, particularly in an era where the Legislature has no qualms about underfunding the courts. But it is incumbent upon the justices to ensure that poor defendants get a lawyer who does more than simply show up.
Four years ago, the Miami-Dade County Public Defender's Office was facing a perfect storm. New cases were flooding in while the Legislature was cutting spending. At one point the office was responsible for providing a defense in more than 40,000 new and reopened noncapital felony cases with fewer than 100 lawyers to handle them. National standards put maximum annual caseloads at 150. Assistant public defenders in Miami-Dade were responsible for 400 or more felony cases. Any lawyer who handles more than double the maximum is unable to provide more than a cursory defense to most clients. In desperation, the office sought help from the state courts.
Under professional rules, attorneys may not take more cases than they can handle. The public defender's legal position is that to allow additional appointments beyond that would be a conflict of interest, since any time used for a new client would limit the ability to serve existing clients. The right to have a court-appointed attorney stems from the 1963 U.S. Supreme Court case out of Florida Gideon vs. Wainwright, which says if a poor defendant faces jail time, he or she has a right to counsel at public expense. But this guarantee would be meaningless if the Legislature provides too little money for too few attorneys to provide an adequate defense.
The state argues that public defenders cannot seek limits on their caseloads. It says defendants only have a constitutional right to the barest minimum representation standard: effective assistance of counsel. If a public defender provides inadequate representation, the client should claim his or her rights were violated, according to the state. But relying on a case-by-case judgment after the fact is a burdensome waste of court system resources. Systemic relief is essential when caseloads become excessive.
What's needed are objective workload standards for public defenders that set manageable limits. Florida's high court should allow public defender offices to decline new appointments when caseloads exceed reasonable limits, pushing the Legislature to provide the necessary resources. A new workload study will soon be conducted through the Florida Public Defender Association with money appropriated in 2012 by the Legislature.
In the meantime, the justices have a responsibility to ensure that public defenders are not so overwhelmed that poor defendants receive an attorney in name only. The state's position is untenable, and it would gut the constitutional right to a lawyer.