BOISE – The Idaho Supreme Court says a lawsuit over Idaho’s troubled public defense system can move forward against all the defendants except one: Idaho Gov. Butch Otter.
The high court’s ruling, handed down Friday, reinstates the class-action lawsuit brought in 2015 by four Idaho residents who said they were denied the right to a fair trial because of Idaho’s underfunded and faulty public defense system.
A lower court judge dismissed the case last year, partly because the judge said he believed a court ruling requiring the state to adequately fund the public defense system would violate the separation of powers.
The American Civil Liberties Union-Idaho, which is representing the plaintiffs, promptly appealed, and the U.S. Department of Justice filed a friend of the court brief in the case, also contending that the lower court was wrong.
The Idaho Supreme Court found that the ACLU does have the right to sue the state over the public defense system, which all sides acknowledge has serious deficiencies. But the justices said the governor shouldn’t be named as a defendant because he didn’t cause the problem.
“Governor Otter’s general duty to enforce state law does not establish causation,” Chief Justice Roger Burdick wrote for the unanimous court.
The state government as a whole, however, does have the responsibility and ability to fix the longstanding problems with the public defense system, the justices found. “Given that the counties have no practical ability to effect statewide change, the State must implement the remedy,” Burdick wrote.
Idaho delegates the responsibility to pay for and provide public defenders to county governments. That has resulted in a patchwork system of public defenders, with high caseloads, little funding and no set standards or policies across the state. Lawmakers and criminal justice officials have been well aware of the problem for years. Two years ago lawmakers created a Public Defense Commission tasked with coming up with minimum standards for counties to follow.
Last year lawmakers gave the commission additional authority along with funding to help counties cover the cost of the needed changes.
But attorneys for the ACLU have contended that the lawsuit needs to move forward so the organization can collect evidence to see if the changes are doing enough to fix the system, which they say is unconstitutional.
In the Supreme Court ruling, the justices found that a ruling ordering Idaho lawmakers to fix the problems wouldn’t violate the separation of powers because the right to counsel isn’t a right entrusted to a particular branch of government.
“Nor does a particular branch of government merely have discretion to enforce the right to counsel, a fundamental right,” Burdick wrote.
In other words, when a fundamental right is being violated and the other branches of government don’t take action to fix it, the judicial branch is required to order a remedy, the high court found.
The Idaho Attorney General’s office didn’t immediately respond to phone messages requesting comment on the ruling.
Jason Williamson, senior staff attorney for the ACLU Criminal Law Reform Project, said, “This is a monumental decision for all Idahoans.”
“Every day thousands of Idahoans walk into courtrooms to face well-resourced prosecutors, police and sheriffs trying to take their liberty away,” Williamson said. “This case is about making sure that every Idahoan has a fair chance against these daunting odds, and that their public defenders have all the resources they need to adequately defend against the full weight of the government.”
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