Vermont v. Brillon: SCOTUS doesn’t get it.

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.

3 thoughts on “Vermont v. Brillon: SCOTUS doesn’t get it.”

  1. Whoa. What I’m hearing you say is public defenders are not as good as private attorneys. What I’m reading you write is that Brillon’s case was shoveled along from continuance to continuance b/c his four attorneys didn’t make the time to prepare his case. Did you actually read the facts of the case? Haven’t you ever had the client who will use every tool in his artillery to use and abuse not just the system but you as his attorney? I’m the first one to fall on the sword of a client that *should* have another bite at the apple. I agree that when there is a case that the attorney isn’t effective, it should be brought to the Court’s attention. But then I’m from the school of thought that bad facts make bad law….. and these were bad facts.

  2. Agreed that bad facts make bad law and that that is what happened here. And of course I’m not saying that PDs are not as good as private attorneys. Brillon’s first attorney sounds like an overworked contract attorney — he first continued to move his office (!?), then to file a motion that should have already been filed, then to conduct investigation that should have already been done if he’d had enough resources. By that time Brillon was angry with him and wanted a new attorney. Do you blame Brillon? Oh, and that attorney was admitting to the court he wasn’t ready for trial but the court denied the third continuance. So Brillon was in a shit spot. He either had to go to trial w/o effective counsel or make a fuss and get a new attorney and more time. He chose the latter.

    Brillon continued to complain of lack of communication from his subsequent attorneys. Is that Brillon being a problem client? Maybe. Is that appointed attorneys being overworked and underresourced? Probably. Brillon’s 4th and 5th attorneys withdrew because they were quitting criminal defense or their contracts with the defender’s office were ending. Does that have anything to do with Brillon being a problem client? Not really. Should he suffer because of staffing issues in the court-appointed defense system? No. Did he? Sounds like it.

    I’m all for holding court-appointed counsel to the highest standards but the fact remains that indigent defense is vastly underfunded nationwide. So what do we do? Punish clients for systemic failures? Great.

  3. It really is a sad state of affairs. The only thing that might make it better is more people becoming public defenders. Of course, even state and county entities are cutting back on legal stafff, so that probably will not happen anytime soon.

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