by Logan Finney, Idaho Reports
A multi-year effort to redesign Idaho’s public defense system from the ground up passed the Senate on Thursday. The bill to create an Office of the State Public Defender now advances to the governor’s desk.
The U.S. Constitution’s Sixth Amendment states that all criminal defendants have the right to an attorney if they cannot afford one. Historically, the state of Idaho has made the counties responsible for providing public defense.
“The state cannot ultimately delegate that responsibility to the counties,” said Sen. Todd Lakey, R-Nampa. “We recognize that.”
Lakey, who carried the legislation in the Senate, reviewed the history of Idaho’s public defense reforms. The ACLU of Idaho is carrying a class action lawsuit that alleges the existing system provides unconstitutional defense. That case is set for trial before the Idaho Supreme Court next year.
While passing the bill to establish a statewide defense system marks a huge step in the process, leadership acknowledged it will take many more years to make the new system fully satisfactory.
“This is one of those matters that’s going to be a multi-year project, and it already has been,” said Majority Leader Kelly Anthon, R-Burley. “I think we have to take that step.”
Some senators were still hesitant about making the leap from a local system to a state-managed one.
“I’m afraid the new system will be too bureaucratic,” said Sen. Dan Foreman, R-Viola. “In the interest of keeping control at the grassroots level… I’m going to be voting no on this bill.”
“I think there hasn’t been enough participation by or listening to the public defenders,” said Sen. Phil Hart, R-Kellogg. “I just think this bill is not quite ready.”
The bill ultimately passed with a 29-6 vote. If signed into law, it would establish a temporary advisory board to help transition to the new system by October 2024.
ACLU of Idaho attorney Ritchie Eppink and Idaho Association of Counties executive director Seth Grigg joined Idaho Reports last week to discuss the legislation.
Logan Finney | Associate Producer
Logan Finney is a North Idaho native with a passion for media production and boring government meetings. He grew up skiing, hunting and hiking in the mountains of Bonner County and has maintained a lifelong interest in the state’s geography, history and politics. Logan joined the Idaho Reports team in 2020 as a legislative session intern and stayed to cover the COVID-19 pandemic. He was hired as an associate producer in 2021 and they haven’t been able to get rid of him since.