Idaho Supreme Court sets the stage for public defense fight

By Devon Downey, Idaho Reports

The battleground has been set for a future trial to determine the constitutionality of Idaho’s public defense system.

On Thursday, the Idaho Supreme Court released its unanimous opinion on Tucker v. Idaho, which set guidelines for a trial on the merits.

The Tucker opinion is the latest in a long legal battle over the public defense system in Idaho. Tracy Tucker, Jason Sharp, Naomi Morley, and Jeremy Payne – the Appellants in this case – were “indigent” defendants facing criminal charges, and were therefore eligible for public defenders. They argue that the public defense system violates the Sixth and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution and Article 1, Section 13 of the Idaho Constitution.

The Sixth Amendment states that all defendants in criminal cases are “to have the assistance of counsel for his defense”. The appellants allege that the public defense system is overburdened and because of that, their attorneys were unable to be with them at each stage of the process. 

The Fourteenth Amendment states that each person has due process rights. Article 1, Section 13 of the Idaho Constitution also states that criminal defendants have the right to due process. Tucker and the other appellants believe that their due process rights were violated when their attorneys were not with them at each stage. 

These claims were first made in a 2015 filing against the State of Idaho, then-Governor C.L. “Butch” Otter, and the Idaho Public Defense Commission. Tucker was appointed a public defender, but they were not with him when he had his bail hearing. He was unable to post the bail that was set, and was in jail for three months.

During the course of his trial, the complaint alleges, Tucker was only able to meet with his attorney three times, for a total of twenty minutes. Two of those three were in court appearances. His attorney was also unable to investigate his case due to their “demanding schedule”.

A district court in 2016 ruled that the appellants lacked standing and had separation of powers concerns. The Idaho Supreme Court then ruled in 2017 that the claims against the Governor should be dismissed, but that the case could go forward against the State and the Public Defense Commission.

At issue in this case were two questions: the proper legal standard for the claims and the burden for both the appellants and respondents at a merit trial. In other words, how should the trial judge determine the prevailing side and what does each side need to prove. 

The opinion, written by Justice Gregory Moeller, states “[t]o obtain declaratory or injunctive relief, Plaintiffs must prove by a preponderance of the evidence that Idaho’s public defense system suffers from widespread, persistent structural deficiencies that likely will result in indigent defendants suffering actual or constructive denials of counsel at critical stages of criminal proceedings.” 

To achieve this, attorneys can argue both individual and potential future harms in the public defense system. 

Another issue in the case centered on whether the case could become a class action suit. The State argued that each appellant needed to prove actual harm and that it would need to be done on a county-by-county basis. 

The Court rejected that argument, stating that “while Appellants must prove what they alleged in their complaint in order to establish standing, this does not obligate Appellants to present specific instances of harm beyond one class representative.” Appellants, therefore, are able to make this a class action suit. 

They similarly rejected the county-by-county argument, stating “Appellants need not establish harm in each of Idaho’s 44 counties to prevail… Appellants may attempt to prove substantial harms to members of the certified class are likely, based on structural deficiencies attributable to the State and the PDC in the system as a whole.” 

Notably, the Court does not provide what is required to be argued in the trial. “As with all lawsuits, the responsibility ultimately rests upon the skill of the attorneys involved to strategically resent their evidence in a manner they believe will most effectively persuade the trier of fact.”

With the establishment of guidelines by the Idaho Supreme Court, the district court will now be able to hear the merits of the arguments. 

This is the next step in a decades long battle over public defense in Idaho. Public defenders have long argued that their caseloads were too large, leading to a 2019 rule change that capped the number of cases they could have

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