But in an order dismissing the case filed on Monday, U.S. District Judge Dee Benson ruled that because the plaintiffs' criminal cases are not resolved, they cannot yet claim they have been harmed or that they have had ineffective counsel. The judge wrote that their claims were "sweeping, yet unsupported."
"Cox and Paulus have counsel," Benson wrote. "Neither has alleged that he had not been represented at any point in his proceeding. Both of their criminal cases are pending and neither has been convicted or sentenced."
Ogden-based attorney Michael Studebaker, who filed the lawsuit, said Tuesday that they are "definitely disappointed" by the judge's decision.
"It sets back indigent defense many years," he said in an email. "We are evaluating an appeal and will make a decision within the appropriate timelines."
The lawsuit alleged that because of large caseloads and flat-fee contracts, 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.
Lawyers for the state of Utah and Washington County had asked for the case to be dismissed, arguing that it was improper for a lawsuit to be filed by criminal defendants before their cases had been resolved. Instead, the defendants should seek "post-conviction relief," they said. They also argued that it was improper to ask a federal judge to order "the complete restructuring of a public defender system" in Washington County.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1963 that defendants facing possible jail time are entitled to an attorney, even if they can't afford one. Utah is one of two states in the nation that delegate this responsibility to individual counties, which have had no state oversight to guide their efforts in meeting the Sixth Amendment obligation.
Each county differs in how it handles that responsibility. In Salt Lake and Utah counties, a nonprofit public defender association provides services, while Washington County and others rely on contracts with public defenders and private attorneys. This can lead to a crushing number of cases, and public defenders often won't or can't ask for funds for experts or private investigators.
And that is just one of myriad problems with Utah's current indigent defense system, according to studies by the ACLU and the Sixth Amendment Center.
There is a lack of uniform structure, no state oversight and inadequate funding that varies from county to county, the studies found. And some county prosecutors are involved in picking who fills public defender contracts, in essence handpicking who they will go up against in court.
During this last legislative session, lawmakers created a state-wide indigent defense commission, tasked to gather data about Utah's public defender system and dole out $1.5 million to counties that need support.
But some critics felt this action was not adequate to address the problems plaguing the system. The American Civil Liberties Union of Utah filed its own lawsuit against the state in June, asking that a judge find that the current system is not constitutional. The ACLU argues in its lawsuit that the system is inadequate, underfunded and unfair to Utahns accused of crimes who rely on public defenders.
That lawsuit is still pending in federal court as the plaintiffs seek class-action status.