Public defender system criticism grows

Months after a lawsuit was filed against Johnson County judges, commissioners and attorneys regarding the public defender system, other counties could face a similar complaint.

Last year, a group of attorneys filed a lawsuit on behalf of six people who had been arrested and were being represented by public defenders.

The lawsuit claimed they were not receiving proper representation because their public defenders had caseloads that were too large, and the public defenders aren’t able to challenge the judges overseeing their cases, since the judges are also their bosses under contracts they have with the county courts.

They also filed a separate petition with the Indiana Supreme Court, asking the justices to declare that the way Johnson County offers public defender services is unconstitutional.

Since then, a similar lawsuit has been filed in Fort Wayne by a separate group of attorneys. The attorneys who filed the local case said they are also considering lawsuits in other communities, and that they have been contacted by other counties who want to know what changes they could make to avoid being sued.

For now, the lawsuit against Johnson County officials is waiting to be assigned to a judge in Shelby County, after it was transferred from Marion County, said Michael Sutherlin, one of the attorneys who filed the local lawsuit. A judge has been picked, but has not yet agreed to take the case, he said. That judge would also decide if the lawsuit would get class action status, he said.

The attorneys are also considering filing lawsuits in at least six other counties, Sutherlin said.

Across the state, several counties follow a similar format to Johnson County, meaning residents accused of crimes who are being represented by a public defender likely face similar issues, said Jonathan Little, an attorney who filed the lawsuit.

Some of those counties have contacted Little or one of the other attorneys involved in the civil lawsuit to see how they can avoid being sued, showing that some communities are being proactive, he said.

Under the civil lawsuit, the attorneys say offenders are not receiving proper representation because public defenders have too many cases to be able to do their own investigation, discovery or depositions in the case. Offenders reported they were not hearing back from their attorneys, and that they felt pressured by their public defender into a plea agreement to resolve their case.

They want a different setup, where public defenders are contracted by an entity other than the courts.

The lawsuit has had little impact on criminal cases in Johnson County, Prosecutor Brad Cooper said. The cases of the offenders involved have had to be assigned to other judges, since the local judges were named in the civil lawsuit, he said.

Cooper said the lawsuit is ludicrous, because local public defenders have decades of experience. And if the system was changed, suspects could end up with public defenders who are trying to gain experience, since attorneys who have a private practice likely would not be interested in giving that up, he said.

But he would like to see the county have more money for both public defenders and deputy prosecutors, he said.

Until the lawsuit is resolved, Little said he believes people will go to prison when they shouldn’t, he said.

“We do these kind of cases because at some point it becomes so obnoxious it’s just a miscarriage of justice,” Little said.

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