Right to Counsel and the Indigent Defense System


In Cooper v. Fitzharris the Ninth Circuit reversed the defendant’s conviction on the grounds that he had received incompetent representation. The court noted the following facts, developed in the evidentiary hearing in the district court, about the representation provided to the defendant by his attorney, a deputy in a public defender office:

[T]rial counsel testified that although she was aware of several issues regarding the admissibility of certain physical and testimonial evidence, she conducted no legal research and made no objection to its introduction. She further testified that within a few months after petitioner’s conviction, she collapsed in court, her health “seriously threatened” by a caseload of approximately 2,000 cases per year.She then resigned from the Public Defenders Office, having come to the conclusion that she was “actually doing the defendants more harm by just presenting a live body than if they had no representation at all.”

The attorney in Cooper appears to have been minimally competent in the sense that she was aware of the legal issues relevant to the case. There is no suggestion that she was inadequately versed in criminal law and procedure, that she lacked relevant experience, or lacked the commitment to represent her clients.Yet a staggering workload prevented her from taking the minimum steps necessary to ensure that her client received competent representation. The situation revealed in Cooper illustrates the premise of this article: the sixth amendment guarantee of competent representation cannot be fulfilled if fundamental defects in the systems which provide counsel are ignored. No attorney, no matter how skilled, trained, and committed, can provide competent representation under working conditions which do not allow such skill, training, and commitment to be practiced.

Suggested Reading

This is a transcript of a speech by Vince Warren, Executive Director of the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR). The speech was originally delivered at the Bertha Justice Institute Social Justice Conference on June 6, 2014.