On Thursday, the Florida Supreme Court determined that attorneys at the Miami-Dade County public defender’s office can withdraw third-degree felony cases due to excessive workloads, according to a recent article by the ABA Journal.
The Florida Supreme Court was considering the constitutionality of section 27.5303(1)(d) of Florida law, which “prohibits a trial court from granting a motion for withdrawal by a public defender based on ‘conflicts arising from underfunding, excessive caseload or the prospective inability to adequately represent a client.’”
Justice Peggy Quince wrote the majority opinion, which deemed the statute unconstitutional in this instance, noting that attorneys representing clients in felony cases can have up to 50 cases per week. Overworked public defenders are often less able to adequately defend their clients. At issue was whether low-income defendants were being given their constitutional right to representation in instances where over-stretched attorneys did not have the time or means to properly handle each of their clients. The reality was that a significant number of defendants experienced longer-than-necessary delays between their indictments and when the cases were actually brought to trial, simply because many of the necessary procedures could not take place in a timely manner. As a result, public defenders were often forced into the difficult task of allocating their time and resources for only some clients, while other defendants were left in a state of judicial limbo.
The court was divided in its final decision, with a 5-2 split vote. While the court upheld the constitutionality of the Florida law, it deemed that in this instance, the grounds for withdrawing due to excessive caseload were valid. The decision was heralded as a victory for the rights of criminal defendants to a speedy fair and speedy trial.
Update (May 30, 2013): In an email we received, we found out that Hogan Lovells handled the case mentioned in the above article pro bono. Parker Thomson, an attorney at Hogan Lovell, has been the leader of a team representing the public defender’s office on a pro bono basis for five years.