Federal suit regarding public defender funds targets Ogden, council members

Feb 18 2011 - 12:15am

OGDEN -- A local public defender has filed his second federal lawsuit this month accusing local officials of funding public defenders so poorly it's unconstitutional.

The new lawsuit filed Tuesday in federal court in Salt Lake City by Michael Studebaker names Ogden city, the mayor and all seven city council members, and alleges the city's funding of public defenders in the Ogden Justice Court is unconstitutional.

Earlier this month, Studebaker filed suit against Weber County and the three county commissioners by name, saying funding levels violate defendants' 6th and 14th Amendment rights regarding due process and equal protection under the law.

The suit charges that Utah is nearly the lowest in the nation, 48th among the states, for indigent defense spending.

The figure comes from American Civil Liberties Union studies that put the state's spending at $5.22 per capita, compared with the national average of $11.86.

The allegations are the same in both suits.

The suit filed Tuesday reiterates that the justice court defenders carry caseloads well above national standards, hurting their ability to represent indigent defendants 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."

Ogden has a contract with Matt Nebeker, a Layton lawyer, for public defender services at $5,565 a month, Studebaker said in an interview.

Studebaker and four or five other attorneys alternate days staffing the court with Nebeker and are paid, but not supervised, by Nebeker. Studebaker is not a county public defender.

In both lawsuits, Studebaker said he did not invite or expect the county public defenders or the city public defenders to join in the lawsuits.

"They won't want to be seen as going against the system when they hope to bid on the contracts again next year," he said.

It is an issue the ACLU has focused on nationally and the Utah ACLU chapter has hammered on, quietly, short of filing lawsuits.

The latter published its study on the funding of indigent defense last year in the Utah Bar Journal.

It found that Utah is one of only two states -- Pennsylvania is the other -- that has no statewide funding system for impoverished defendants at the trial level.

"The irregular, and almost entirely unregulated, county-by-county indigent defense 'system' that results from the lack of state oversight and disparate funding, training and access to resources experienced by public defenders is constitutionally inadequate and ripe for judicial challenge," states the ACLU.

The study pointed to lawsuits in seven other states with varying degrees of success challenging poor indigent defense funding, led by the Nevada Supreme Court in 2008 ordering an overhaul of the public defender system there.

Studebaker in both lawsuits claims the defendants "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."

Telephone calls to the city council office seeking comment on the lawsuit were not returned. Mayor Matthew Godfrey said he couldn't comment because he hadn't seen the suit.

The county 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.

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