MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
And I'm Robert Siegel. A federal court ruled this week on a case that has important implications for the rights of poor defendants. A judge ruled that two cities north of Seattle systematically violated the rights of people facing jail time. The court-appointed attorneys for these defendants spent less than an hour on each of their cases. The dispute has attracted national attention because hundreds of other public defender systems operate the same way. More now from NPR's Carrie Johnson.
CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: A half-century ago in the landmark Gideon case, the U.S. Supreme Court required the government to provide a lawyer if a criminal defendant couldn't afford one. But a case playing out in Washington this year has exposed some disturbing facts about how those rights now work in practice. The ACLU sued two cities north of Seattle - Burlington and Mount Vernon - claiming that lawyers who contracted with the cities to defend the poor essentially operated a guilty plea mill.
David Carroll runs the Sixth Amendment Center, a nonprofit group that studies public defense systems.
DAVID CARROLL: The right to counsel means more than just a warm body with a bar card. That person needs sufficient time to meet with clients, to investigate the facts of the case.
JOHNSON: Carroll says he and lots of other people had been following the Washington case.
CARROLL: Well, it's very important because the method of delivering indigent-defense services in Mount Vernon and Burlington - that the court found to be deficient - is the most common way government tries to provide the right to counsel in America. So it really is a test case, to see how the federal courts are going to deal with our nation's indigent-defense crisis.
JOHNSON: This week, Judge Robert Lasnik said the contracts the cities signed with public defenders were so stingy that the lawyers would be guaranteed to lose money by having at least one initial meeting with every defendant. Judge Lasnik said the cities and their lawyers have been working hard to do a better job but, he wrote, the whole system is still broken. The judge has required the cities to hire a supervisor to evaluate how the public defenders are going about their work, and ordered the cities to turn over case files to the ACLU to make sure that person's doing his job, too. Andrew Cooley defended Mount Vernon and Burlington in the case.
ANDREW COOLEY: So now, we've got to retool our system to come up with a system where we're going to be more actively involved with these public defenders. And the question that we have is whether the public defenders are going to tolerate this.
JOHNSON: Cooley says he thinks those lawyers will bristle at the new oversight, and balk at turning over case files for inspection; to which Sarah Dunne, of the ACLU, replies: Too bad.
SARAH DUNNE: You can't run a school without a principal. So it's that same sort of concept. And here, they don't have a supervisor in place, and that's exactly what the judge has ordered in this case. He said, no, no, no. This city needs to hire a part-time supervisor who will oversee the attorneys and ensure that in fact, they're providing representation to indigents accused.
JOHNSON: Dunne says she thinks this case may have been the first to go all the way to trial since the historic Gideon ruling in 1963. But it may not be the last because the problems that surfaced in Mount Vernon, in Burlington, are at epidemic levels.
DUNNE: A city cannot decide to run a criminal defense system, an indigent defense system, and then simply underfund it.
JOHNSON: The U.S. Justice Department took the rare step of filing a brief in the Washington case to support the right to counsel, and a spokeswoman there says this week's court decision is a significant step that, quote, "moves us towards justice for all."
Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.