By Danielle Silva
Governor Gavin Newsom has proposed a $4 million budget increase for 2020-2021 and $3.5 million annually thereafter for the Office of the State Public Defender (OSPD) after a lawsuit was settled against the State of California and Fresno County.
According to the ACLU Press release, “The American Civil Liberties Union, ACLU of North California, along with its other California affiliates, and the law firms Morgan, Lewis & Bockius LLP and Paul Hastings LLP have settled a lawsuit brought against the State of California and Fresno County. The settlement is a considerable step toward ensuring that the Sixth Amendment right to counsel is upheld throughout all of California’s 58 counties for all accused people, regardless of how much money they have.”
“The Governor’s proposal in this settlement is a significant and important step toward the State of California taking responsibility for criminal prosecutions undertaken in its name to ensure that all Californian’s constitutional right to effective assistance of counsel is guaranteed regardless of whether they are rich or poor,” said Stephen Turanchik, attorney with Paul Hastings LLP.
The settlement refers to the case Carolyn Phillips et al. v. State of California et. al, which was pending in the Superior Court of California, County of Fresno. According to the settlement agreement, the plaintiffs claim that California failed to provide effective legal representation to indigent defendants in Californian criminal court proceedings, a statement which the State disagreed with.
During the demurrer stage of the case, where the defendant claims that even if the facts of the complaint are true the plaintiff is not entitled to prevail in the lawsuit, the Superior Court overruled that State’s stance.
In their ruling, the Superior Court concluded, “The State cannot disclaim its constitutional responsibilities merely because it has delegated such responsibilities to its municipalities… If the State created an indigent defense system that is systematically flawed, and underfunded, [case law] indicates that the State remains responsible, even if it delegated this responsibility to political subdivisions.”
Without admitting fault or wrongdoing, the State of California and Fresno County settled. With Governor Newsom’s proposed budget, the OSPD will have approx. a 28 percent increase from their current budget. Currently, OSPD only handles death penalty appeals but this expansion would “include broad new authorization for OSPD to provide support, including training and technical assistance for California counties’ provision of trial-level indigent criminal defense in non-capital cases.”
Ten million dollars of the proposal will also go toward the Board of State and Community corrections to create a grant-funding program to local public defense systems as well as a means to evaluate the effectiveness of these grants.
“California is currently one of only four states that provides no state funding for trial-level public defense services and no mechanism for any state-level training or oversight of trial-level providers,” said Kathleen Guneratne, senior staff attorney with the ACLU of Northern California. “The Governor’s proposal is a noteworthy and encouraging step toward moving California off this disreputable list towards a system of public defense that is more equitable across the state.”
The Fresno County Public Defender’s Office will also receive increased funding. The settlement “imposes rigorous reporting requirements and requires Fresno County to allocate a minimum of $23.5 million to the Public Defender’s Office next year and at least $24 million for the following three years, representing an increase of more than $10 million over the Public Defender’s budget the year preceding the lawsuit.”
The ACLU press release also notes, “In September 2013, over 80 percent of the attorneys working in the Fresno County Public Defender’s Office signed a letter protesting their working conditions. These attorneys had so little time with their clients that they often were unable to discuss the circumstances surrounding the person’s arrest or investigate whether evidence existed that could be used in their defense.”