Florida criminal defendants too poor to afford their own representation may soon find themselves represented by counsel not employed as public defenders. When confronted with an overburdened criminal defense system, the Florida Supreme Court recently opted to value the rights of the criminally accused over certain interests of the state’s tax payers. In essence, the court ruled that if a public defenders’ office is too taxed with current client interests to take on additional cases, the state must pay for other qualified representation for indigent criminal defendants.
Fifty years ago, a Florida case entitled Gideon v. Wainwright was appealed all the way to the United States Supreme Court. That body ultimately ruled that every indigent person who cannot afford adequate criminal representation must be provided with adequate counsel if he or she has been accused of criminal wrongdoing. In upholding this right broadly, the Florida Supreme Court recently reaffirmed that adequate representation is a foundational right of the criminal justice system.
Public defenders increasingly face an insurmountable workload. As a result, it can be nearly impossible for these civil servants to adequately uphold their ethical and constitutional duties to their clients. By allowing for a safety valve in the event that a given office is too overburdened to take on new clients, indigent persons in Florida will now not be left without the counsel they are entitled to.
We often write about some of the ways in which the criminal justice system seems to be broken and nearly beyond repair. Thankfully, the news of Florida’s decision is a cause for celebration.
Source: ACLU, “ACLU Praises Fla. Supreme Court Decision Recognizing Crisis Faced by Poor People Accused of Crimes,” May 23, 2013