OGDEN -- A local public defender is suing Weber County, saying it has failed to adequately fund public defenders and accusing officials of violating the 6th and 14th Amendments regarding due process and equal protection under the law.
The suit names the county, as well as current Weber County Commissioners Craig Dearden, Jan Zogmaister and Kerry Gibson, even though Gibson took office only last month.
The suit filed in federal court by Mike Studebaker on behalf of defendant Frank Williams claims the public defenders under contract with the county are carrying caseloads well above national standards, hurting their ability to represent indigent criminals who can't afford to hire an attorney.
"Many qualified attorneys cannot afford to forfeit their private practices because the contracts do not pay them enough to both support themselves and meet their office overhead," the lawsuit reads.
"As a result, they have no choice but to compromise the quality of the representation provided to their indigent clients."
Weber County funds more than a dozen public defenders appearing in 2nd District Court on individual contracts.
Studebaker is not among them, but he is a contracted public defender in Ogden Justice Court.
He said he would be suing Ogden city as well but hasn't found a defendant willing to be the plaintiff for such a lawsuit.
Williams has a drug case pending in 2nd District Court.
"At the time this lawsuit was filed, Mr. Williams had spoken with his attorney only two times for a few minutes since the time he was arrested," the suit alleges without naming Williams' public defender.
"During the times of his criminal case, his attorney did not provide him with a copy of the charges against him or with any discovery material.
"His attorney also did not inform him about any defenses or perform any true investigation about the case or defense."
The suit claims county officials "design the indigent defense budgets to minimize potential financial liability rather than to ensure adequate defense representation."
"To keep costs low, the Defendants refuse to budget for necessary attorney staff, they refuse to compensate indigent defense counsel adequately, and they refuse to provide adequate funds for necessary support services such as investigators, expert witnesses, paralegal and secretarial assistance."
The suit claims the county budgeted approximately $1.1 million for public defenders in 2008 and 2009, $971,000 for 2010 and $966,800 for 2011.
At the same time, the Weber County Attorney's Office was budgeted at $1.9 million in 2008 and 2009, more than $2 million in 2010 and $2.2 million this year.
"Defendants have known for decades that the failure to set adequate standards and provide the resources to meet them, and the consequent inability to provide constitutionally adequate legal representation, was improper," the suit claims.
"This is supported by the fact that when the public defender association was disbanded (in 2010) for the current system, the Defendants tried to place into their contracts that any public defender would indemnify the Defendants if a lawsuit was brought alleging constitutional deficiencies in the indigent representation system."
Studebaker said in an interview Saturday he didn't know for sure if the contracts for each public defender currently shield the county from any liability for inadequate defense.
"But the fact the county brought it up shows they (county officials) knew what they were doing was wrong," he said.
Calls to Weber County Commission Chairman Craig Dearden and other officials were not immediately returned Saturday. Calls to several of the county's public defenders also were not immediately returned.
Studebaker said he has heard "rumblings" that they are upset with him for bringing the suit.
Filed Jan. 28, the suit is pending without date before U.S. District Utah Judge Clark Waddoups.
In 2001, Ogden defense lawyer Mike Boyle filed a similar federal lawsuit, which went nowhere. It got him fired from Weber County Public Defender Association, or PDA, in place at the time, as PDA officials claimed the suit hurt their ongoing negotiations with the county.
Fellow public defender Kent Snider resigned at the time in protest.