Lawsuit challenges allowing judges to pick public defenders

(WLFI Photo)

FRANKLIN, Ind. (AP) — A central Indiana county faces a lawsuit challenging its system of having judges hire the attorneys who serve as public defenders in criminal cases.

The lawsuit argues that at least one of Johnson County’s part-time public defenders has a caseload that’s more than double the level recommended by the state public defender council. The lawsuit was filed Thursday in a Marion County court on behalf of seven criminal defendants who say they’ve received inadequate representation and felt pressured to plead guilty to charges, The Daily Journal reported.

Attorney Jonathan Little said the lawsuit aims to have the system of judges choosing public defenders ruled unconstitutional statewide. Officials say 40 of Indiana’s 92 counties use that method, while the others have an independent board that hires public defenders.

“If Johnson County is being unconstitutional, then other counties would hopefully see that, too,” Little said.

A telephone message from The Associated Press seeking comment from the Johnson County commissioners’ attorney, Kathleen Hash, wasn’t immediately returned.

The American Bar Association recommends a limit for full-time public defenders of 150 felony cases, and the Indiana Public Defender Council recommends a limit of 120, Little said. The lawsuit cited one Johnson County public defender as having a caseload of 176 felony cases and 32 misdemeanors last year.

For a part-time public defender, which Johnson County’s attorneys would be considered, the maximum would be around 75 cases, he said.

High caseloads and a lack of services and support, such as a paralegal or investigator, means that public defenders are not able to serve their clients by doing depositions and their own investigations, said Michael Sutherlin, another of the attorneys that filed the lawsuit.

Larry Landis, executive director of the Indiana Public Defender Council, said he believed the system allowing judges to select the public defenders could limit an attorney’s ability to speak up if he or she believes something is being done improperly in a case.

“We do not believe public defenders should be employees of judges, the same as prosecutors should not be,” Landis said.

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