Indigent Defense

Courtroom 066The Pioneer Press recently featured the work of First Judicial District public defender Lauri Traub in defending Brian Fitch Sr.  Mr. Fitch was convicted earlier this month of first degree murder in the death of police officer Scott Patrick.  He was not a generally popular client, but Traub made clear that her team’s vigorous defense of Fitch was consistent with her belief that “everyone is entitled to representation.”  Fitch was asked by the judge if he had been satisfied with the representation Traub provided, to which he replied ”[f]or sure.”

Our modern public defender system is the child of the U.S. Supreme Court decision in the case of Gideon v. Wainwright, which held that indigent criminal defendants have a right to legal counsel under the Sixth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. In State v. Ferris, the Minnesota Supreme Court held that a public defender must be appointed if a defendant would experience “substantial hardship” to hire counsel. Minnesota Statute §611.17 requires courts to consider certain factors in determining a defendant’s eligibility for a public defender.  But Rule 5.04 (Minn. R. Crim. P.) states that “[t]he court must not appoint a district public defender if the defendant is financially able to retain private counsel but refuses to do so.” Further, the Minnesota Court of Appeals clarified in the case of State v. Nace that the right to a public defender does not mean the right to one’s choice of such.  For quick reference, the Minnesota House Research Department published a short synopsis of Minnesota’s Public Defender System, explaining who is eligible for this service.

As last weekend’s television debut of fictional lawyer “Jimmy McGill” dramatized, lawyers don’t typically earn much money from public defense cases. (Traub herself waits tables on the side.) At the same time, public defense is a limited and high-demand resource that gets spread painfully thin, perhaps unconstitutionally so. To consider this proposition, see this 2010 evaluation by the Minnesota State Auditor of the state’s public defender system. Here in the law library we also have Chasing Gideon: The Elusive Quest for Poor People’s Justice by Karen Houppert (The New Press 2013).  This book articulately explains why our nationwide system of public defense is in disarray, and asserts that we still haven’t come close to meeting the promise of Gideon.


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