March 2010
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Day 24/03/2010

Indigent Defense: Caseload Standards

Professor Steven Zeidman (director of the Defenders Clinic at CUNY School of Law) has an op-ed in today’s New York Law Journal on the “series of seemingly unconnected events” (renewed legislative and executive interest, and an opportunity for the judiciary to intervene in Hurrell-Harring, et al. v. State of New York) that “has created a historic opportunity” for New York to more fully actualize the constitutional right to counsel in criminal cases almost 50 years ago in Gideon v. Wainwright, 372 U.S. 335 (1963):

Given this historic convergence of attention and opportunity regarding indigent defense, any attempt to create standards for ensuring effective indigent representation must be carefully scrutinized…. Numbers should not be the only, nor primary, way to assess defense attorney effectiveness. Imposing numerical standards is not a magic elixir that will suddenly transform the state of indigent defense practice. The problems run deep and can only be addressed through searching inquiry into the nature of indigent defense practice.

What are the component parts of quality defense lawyering? What are the institutional norms and loyalties that impact public defenders? What are the prevailing attitudes of public defenders toward their clients, their work and what is means to be a zealous advocate? What do the accused, the consumers of indigent defense services, have to say about their lawyers? What is it that should make us confident that public defenders will provide dramatically better representation simply by virtue of having 10, 20 or 50 fewer cases in a year?

Steven Zeidman, Indigent Defense: Caseload Standards, N.Y. Law Journal, Mar. 24, 2010.