A lawsuit filed against Johnson County judges, commissioners and attorneys questions the way public defenders are paid, who oversees them and how many cases they handle at once.

Under the current system in the county, in which judges hire local attorneys, public defenders have caseloads that are too large to properly represent their clients and are unable to question or challenge the judges overseeing the cases, who are also their bosses, the lawsuit filed in Marion County claims.

One public defender had a caseload of 176 felony cases and 32 misdemeanors last year, more than twice the recommended amount for part-time attorneys. Some suspects reported not seeing their attorney for months at a time, not getting responses to requests for a speedy trial and feeling pressured to plead guilty in order to move the case along, according to the lawsuit.

That’s why Johnson County and other counties statewide must change the way they offer public defender services, attorneys who filed the lawsuit said.

Johnson County is likely no worse than other counties around central Indiana or the state but was chosen for its proximity to Indianapolis and because records showing the caseloads of local public defenders were easily accessible, according to Jonathan Little, one of the Indianapolis attorneys who filed the lawsuit.

The goal of the lawsuit, which was filed on behalf of seven local offenders and any others represented by public defenders, is to prompt change statewide, the attorneys said.

They also filed a separate petition with the Indiana Supreme Court, asking the justices to declare that the way Johnson County is offering public defender services is unconstitutional, Little said. And if this lawsuit doesn’t prompt statewide change, more lawsuits could be filed in other counties, he said.

“If Johnson County is being unconstitutional, then other counties would hopefully see that, too,” Little said.

The lawsuit claims that Johnson County has violated the right to counsel of local offenders and that public defenders and judges have breached their contracts by not providing adequate representation.

“The government is trampling your right to an attorney, to stay out of prison, to have someone fight for you,” Little said.

In the lawsuit, the attorneys ask that the judge require Johnson County to create public defender services not overseen by the court, with proper funding and caseload limits, that the plaintiffs in the case be given a financial award to compensate them for damages and that the county pay all attorneys fees and costs, the filing said.

How public defender services are set up has been a topic of discussion at the Statehouse, including by the Indiana Public Defender Council, a state judicial branch agency that is a support center for attorneys who represent indigent criminal defendants, executive director Larry Landis said.

Johnson County is one of 40 counties in the state where public defenders are contracted by judges of county courts, a system the organization says is improper, Landis said. Johnson County pays its public defenders a contracted amount of $50,000 to $55,000 per year, according to the lawsuit filing.

“We do not believe public defenders should be employees of judges, the same as prosecutors should not be,” he said.

When public defenders are hired by the individual court for services, that makes the judge their boss. That is a conflict of interest and has a chilling effect on that attorney’s ability to speak up if the attorney believes something is being done improperly in a case, he said.

Instead, the Indiana Public Defender Council prefers the system used in the other 52 counties, where a board is named to oversee public defenders in the county. That board, which is independent of the courts, hires and pays the public defenders, he said.

Marion County changed to that system years ago after a similar lawsuit was filed about the representation offenders were getting, said Michael Sutherlin, one of the attorneys who filed the lawsuit.

Under that system, the caseload and pay of public defenders also has to meet state guidelines, and they have to have a certain level of experience before taking on higher level felony cases, Landis said. The county would be reimbursed by the state for 40 percent of the costs for public defender services, and the Indiana Public Defender Council has been pushing to have that amount raised to 50 percent, with the hope of making the arrangement more attractive to more counties, Landis said.

That system would give inmates a better chance at getting proper representation in court, Little said.

Little and other attorneys reviewed the caseloads of local public defenders; how often they filed motions, such as to suppress evidence or for a bond reduction hearing; and whether their cases are dismissed — closed when the offender pleads guilty or go to trial.

One public defender had a caseload of 176 felony cases and 32 misdemeanors last year.

The American Bar Association recommends a limit for full-time public defenders of 150 felony cases, and the Indiana Public Defender Commission recommends a limit of 120, Little said. For a part-time public defender, which Johnson County’s attorneys would be considered, the maximum would be around 75, he said.

With that high of a caseload and a lack of services and support, such as a paralegal or investigator, public defenders are not able to serve their clients by doing depositions, discovery and their own investigation into their case, Sutherlin said.

Some inmates also reported not getting any responses to requests or letters they had sent them, he said.

Most local cases were resolved with a plea agreement, in which the offender agrees to plead guilty for a set sentence, according to the lawsuit. Some offenders said they felt pressured into a plea agreement by their public defender, the lawsuit said.

The local lawsuit is modeled after a similar one filed in the state of Washington, which prompted the federal government to offer advice on how the court system should be run, the attorneys said.

The attorneys have asked for a class action lawsuit, but a judge would have to give the case that classification.

Local judges Mark Loyd and Lance Hamner declined to comment on pending litigation.

Pull Quote

“The government is trampling your right to an attorney, to stay out of prison, to have someone fight for you.”

Attorney Jonathan Little, on Johnson County’s public defender system

Annie Goeller is managing editor of the Daily Journal. She can be reached at agoeller@dailyjournal.net or 317-736-2718.