The SCOTUS yesterday held in Vermont v. Brillon that delays caused by a public defender do not count against the state in determining whether a defendant’s right to a speedy trial has been violated. (Opinion in PDF.) More specifically, the Court held that PDs are not state actors in the criminal justice system and that court-appointed attorneys should not be treated any differently than private counsel when assessing speedy trial violations.
Sadly, the good Justices demonstrated today that they live in a fantasy land when it comes to the 6th Amendment right to counsel. Their ruling would make complete sense if we lived in a world where appointed counsel had the same resources (primarily time, but also money) as private counsel. Sadly, we don’t live in that world. Instead, we live in a world where the State (embodied by state and county governments throughout this nation) has again and again and again made deliberate choices to provide court-appointed counsel as cheaply and minimally as possible. Therefore, treating court-appointed counsel the same as private counsel for purposes of speedy trial analysis is like treating a city bus and a motorcycle the same for getting you from one side of the city to the other. Sure, both can do the job, but one has many more obligations and demands upon it than the other.
That’s a far from perfect analogy, but the point remains that Brillon leaves a gaping in hole in the 6th Amendment for those defendants who get appointed counsel who are overworked and who delay their cases because of the State’s refusal to provide them with the resources to do their jobs adequately.
One solution to this is for public defenders to simply refuse to take cases when they know they are overloaded. Of course, by the time you realize you’re overloaded, it’s already too late; you’ve already got too many cases to adequately meet all deadlines and truly represent your clients.
So what does an indigent defendant do when his counsel just shovels his case along from continuance to continuance because counsel hasn’t had a chance to prepare the case? An Ineffective Assistance of Counsel claim can get a defendant new counsel or a new trial, but it does nothing to guarantee a speedy trial.