BILLINGS, MT – The American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of Montana filed an amicus brief today in the Montana Supreme Court urging the court to ensure that the constitutional right to counsel is not illusory for indigent criminal defendants prosecuted in state courts.
The case is Rhonda Lindquist and Office of State Public Defender v. Montana Thirteenth Judicial District Court, the Honorable Donald Harris. The Montana State Public Defender is appealing the lower court’s order holding her in contempt of court because her attorneys in Yellowstone County were so overburdened with existing clients that they could not take on more cases. The Office of State Public Defender was created in response to the 2002 ACLU lawsuit, White v. Martz. While the establishment of a statewide office was a significant improvement over Montana’s previous public defense system, the legislature has consistently undermined the office’s potential by failing to adequately fund it. The result is a criminal legal system that fails to consistently enforce, protect, and fulfill the constitutional right to counsel.
“The current crisis in Yellowstone County is not an outlier: it is the latest and most public manifestation of a statewide system in long-term crisis,” said Alex Rate legal director of the ACLU of Montana. “Montana has a long history of neglecting its obligation to ensure that the right to counsel exists for everyone. This case presents the Montana Supreme Court with an opportunity to order meaningful systemic relief that would protect the rights of Montanans and the integrity of our state’s criminal legal system. ”
The amicus brief urges the Montana Supreme Court to consider the case before it within the context of Montana’s longstanding halfhearted commitment to upholding the right to counsel. The brief argues that: only systemic solutions can remedy systemic failure to uphold constitutional rights; the right to counsel requires states to spend money to adequately fund public defense; the court’s precedent establishes that it can review legislative funding decisions; and the court can immediately mitigate the crisis by issuing an emergency rule requiring courts to dismiss criminal charges without prejudice when there is no lawyer immediately available with the time and expertise to effectively represent the accused.
“States have an affirmative obligation to provide effective lawyers for indigent criminal defendants. If lawmakers want to spend less money on public defense, they must end Montana’s overreliance on criminalization,” said Emma Andersson deputy director of the ACLU’s Criminal Law Reform Project. “In the meantime, the right to counsel in Montana is in peril: we urge the Montana Supreme Court to do everything in its power to fortify this crucial constitutional right.”