Fifty years ago, a Florida criminal case (State vs. Clarence Gideon), would create a set of facts that would eventually be heard by the United States Supreme Court, and become the landmark case read ever since by virtually every “Crim Law” student: “Gideon vs. Wainwright.” Prior to reaching the US Supreme Court, Mr. Gideon was denied appointment of counsel by the trial court because the crime for which he was charged was “not a capital offense.” The US Supreme Court, in noting that the 6th Amendment of the Constitution does not distinguish between capital and non-capital cases, ruled that indigent criminal defendants were indeed entitled to be represented by counsel. Over 2000 Florida inmates were released, and Mr. Gideon received a new trial during which, once represented, led to his acquittal. Additionally, a Public Defender’s office was created in Florida.
Fast forward 50 years, in which States across the country, including Florida, find themselves
with severe budget problems. These budget problems have impacted many public defender offices to the point that representation of criminal defendants have been referred to as nothing short of “triage,” in which PDs do not have time to take depositions, or even interview clients. In a yet to be published Florida Supreme Court case written last month, and styled Public Defender, 11th Circuit v. State of FL, 38 Fla. L. Weekly S339 (2013), the Court addressed whether the Public Defenders Office can withdraw from cases due to the massive case overload that has resulted from budgetary shortfalls.
In scanning the case, the Court addresses many things, including an attorney’s obligation (whether in private practice, or public), to provide effective assistance of counsel. The Court decided that a public defender could indeed withdraw, in spite of a Florida statute that seemingly would make it illegal for a public defender to do so when based on the budget. The Court refused to decide the Constitutionality of the statute, but for the life of me I am not sure how, based on the Court’s language, the statute will not eventually be struck down unless changed.
Although my area of practice is representing persons in New Port Richey and throughout Pasco (and surrounding counties) whom have been injured in automobile accidents, I have always been interested in constitutional cases involving criminal defendants. Since Gideon vs. Wainwright is such an important landmark case, I found the Florida Supreme Court’s fresh opinion to be of interest. However, I am left to wonder: If a public defender can withdraw due to a massive case load created by an inadequate budget, then what happens to the criminal defendant whom has a right to counsel? Is it outsourced to the private sector? If so, then I assume the attorney in the private sector must be paid, so how does that alleviate the financial crisis in government?