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Eye On Boise

Idaho lawyer: Counties, not state, liable for public defense

An attorney for the state of Idaho says the American Civil Liberties Union is suing the wrong people over the state's allegedly unconstitutional public defense system – and they’d be better off suing county commissioners, magistrates or judges. In response to the arguments from Deputy Attorney General Michael Gilmore, ACLU attorney Jason Williamson told 4th District Judge Sam Hoagland that Idaho is one of just three states that don't provide funding for public defense, the AP reports. "Delegation is not the problem," Williamson said. "It's when delegation turns into abdication – that's the problem."

Earlier on Wednesday, an interim legislative committee met to talk with county leaders and mull over possible legislation intended to improve public defense across the state. The Idaho Association of Counties is pushing for any changes to be paid for by the state, with the counties contributing whatever they currently pay for public defense, reports AP reporter Rebecca Boone. Several lawmakers on the committee are more supportive of a grant program where counties that meet certain standards could get a portion of state money.

The interim committee didn't reach consensus on Wednesday, but members hope to introduce a bill for the 2016 legislative session. Meanwhile the judge on Wednesday afternoon took both sides’ arguments under advisement; the state wants the lawsuit dismissed.

Dan Chadwick with the Idaho Association of Counties warned lawmakers that the ACLU lawsuit wasn't the only one – Canyon County has been sued by a former employee. The employee purports to be a whistleblower and says the public defense caseloads are too high and funding is too low, Chadwick said.

"Quite frankly it's a big frustration for us, and we're talking about a state responsibility," Chadwick said. "The only reason it's a county responsibility is that the state has chosen to delegate that to the counties ... no matter what we do and how hard we try to fix it, we end up in court anyway." You can read Boone’s full report here.

Betsy Z. Russell
Betsy Z. Russell joined The Spokesman-Review in 1991. She currently is a reporter in the Boise Bureau covering Idaho state government and politics, and other news from Idaho's state capital.

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