Ensuring Effective Representation for Indigent Criminal Defendants

2013 marked the 50th anniversary of Gideon v. Wainwright, the landmark decision in which the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously held that the U.S. Constitution requires states to provide defense lawyers to represent indigent defendants charged with serious criminal offenses. Despite this mandate, many states fail to dedicate adequate resources to this important right, potentially causing erroneous convictions due to ineffective assistance of counsel.

Florida is one such state. As an example, due to inadequate funding and lack of staffing resources, the Public Defender of the Eleventh Judicial Circuit of Florida (PD-11) historically handled an average of 500 non-capital felony cases per lawyer per year, which impaired PD-11's ability to provide competent, diligent, and conflict-free representation to indigent criminal defendants.

Beginning in 2008, lawyers in our Miami office agreed to represent PD-11 on a pro bono basis in challenging the State of Florida's failure to provide effective relief from excessive caseloads. In May 2013, the Supreme Court of Florida held that the relief PD-11 sought - to decline appointments to new third-degree felony cases until its caseloads reached a more appropriate level - was permissible and that PD-11 had demonstrated that the excessive caseloads in his office were prejudicing his clients' right to effective assistance of counsel.

The decision represents the potential for significant change for public defenders across the country, as the court found that the ability to appeal one's conviction on ineffective assistance of counsel grounds due to excessive caseloads may not be a sufficient protection of the Sixth Amendment's right to counsel.

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