This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2016, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
A proposed class-action lawsuit was filed Friday against the state of Utah and Washington County on behalf of thousands of criminal defendants who are represented in court by public defenders.
The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court on Friday, claims the county's current public defender system is broken, and that the attorneys who work those contracts are overworked, underpaid and are not given the proper support to defend their clients. The lawsuit claims this is violating the accused's constitutional rights which requires states to provide an attorney for those who can't afford them.
"[The county] enters into fixed-price contracts with local attorneys to provide indigent defense services to those charged with criminal wrongdoing in the district court," the lawsuit reads. "The contracts are structured and administered in a manner that impede the ability of the attorneys to provide constitutionally adequate legal representation to their clients."
The suit, filed by Ogden-based attorney Michael Studebaker, names two plaintiffs: William Cox, who is accused of working as an unlicensed broker or agent and is facing a third-degree felony; and Edward Paulus, who is charged with first-degree felony aggravated sexual abuse.
In Paulus' case, the lawsuit claims Washington County officials did not renew his public defender's contract and now that contract sits open, just a month before Paulus' case is supposed to go to trial. The complaint alleges that the county has been "forcing/coercing" another public defender to take on multiple contracts in the meantime.
Studebaker notes in Cox's case that he is being prosecuted by the Utah Attorney General's Office but receives zero funding from the state for his public defense.
The lawsuit further alleges that public defenders in Washington County can't meet with their clients in a "meaningful manner" before they go to court, can't adequately investigate the charges against their clients and do not, or rarely use, expert witnesses or forensic testing at trial.
Studebaker said Friday that now was the time to file the lawsuit, in the wake of a study released four months ago by the Sixth Amendment Center, which was critical of Utah's indigent defense system.
"The time to study has ended," he said. "It's time for action. I've heard the Legislature wants to form another study. That's a waste for those who are stuck in the system. We filed now because it's time."
State legislators are expected to receive a bill proposing the formation of an Indigent Defense Commission, which would provide statewide oversight of the services being offered to indigent Utahns, as well as provide training, economic assistance and other resources to local jurisdictions. That bill had not been filed as of Friday.
Washington County administrator Dean Cox said Friday that he had not seen the federal lawsuit, so he could not comment specifically about the allegations.
But he said the county will wait to make any changes to its current public defender system until the legislative session is over.
"Without knowing what's going to happen, it makes it difficult to plan for this next year," he said. "... We're going to follow the Legislature and keep our ear to the ground."