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Idaho Supreme Court eyes state’s public defender system

photo of the ada county courthouse

The Ada County Courthouse. File photo

BOISE, Idaho (AP) — An attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Idaho on Friday asked the Idaho Supreme Court to declare the state’s public defender system inadequate under the U.S. Constitution and order the state to fix it.

Liz Lockwood told justices that the state’s justice system doesn’t ensure adequate funding and representation for poor people tried for crimes as required by the Sixth Amendment.

The class-action lawsuit seeks “to force the state of Idaho to live up to its responsibilities,” she said.

Lockwood said the current system contains “structural systemic deficiencies.” She noted that public defenders in 2018 in Idaho spent only 3.8 hours per felony case.

But Idaho Deputy Attorney General Leslie Hayes told justices that lawmakers have approved about $30 million in recent years to improve the system, and that the state is meeting its requirements to adequately defend people who can’t afford an attorney. She said the changes happened so fast it could make the litigation meaningless because there is no longer a problem needing to be addressed.

“The improvements are so vast and so quick that there’s no purpose for us continuing to be in court unless a problem is actually happening,” she said.

The court took the case under advisement. It’s not clear when a ruling will be issued.

The case stems from a 2015 lawsuit the ACLU filed against Idaho, contending the state wasn’t meeting its Sixth Amendment obligations that guarantee the assistance of counsel for those charged in state court. The group said public defenders had so many cases they couldn’t mount good defenses, among other problems.

A district court judge dismissed the case in 2016. But the Idaho Supreme Court in 2017 ruled the lawsuit could continue.

The case was turned into a class-action lawsuit in 2018. In 2019, 4th District Court Judge Samuel Hoagland declined to issue a ruling and recommended both sides ask the Idaho Supreme Court to examine the issue and help determine what standards the state needs to meet so as not to violate the constitution.

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