Appeals court upholds decision on lawsuit

A lawsuit claiming local public defenders are overworked and not properly representing offenders is likely headed to the state supreme court.

The lawsuit filed in 2015 was dismissed by a Shelby County judge, and that decision recently was upheld by the Indiana Court of Appeals.

But one of the attorneys who filed the lawsuit, representing six people arrested and facing criminal charges in Johnson County, said he plans to appeal that decision to the Indiana Supreme Court, and will go to the U.S. Supreme Court if necessary.

“Morally as an attorney I cannot let this continue,” attorney Jonathan Little said.

In the civil lawsuit, Little and other attorneys representing the six people claim that 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 the county’s system for public defenders, who have contracts with the county courts. The lawsuit had asked for damages and legal fees to be paid, but also an injunction that would require Johnson County to set up a new public defender system.

The county commissioners, public defenders and four county judges who handle criminal cases, who were named in the lawsuit, all filed motions to dismiss, saying the case did not have a legal argument. Their request was granted by a Shelby County judge.

That decision was considered by the Indiana Court of Appeals, who upheld the dismissal, according to the court filing.

Bill Barrett, an attorney representing the county in the lawsuit, said they will have to wait and see what happens next in the litigation process, which has been ongoing for more than two years.

Little plans to take the case to the Indiana Supreme Court next because the issue is important and is affecting many other counties outside of Johnson County, he said.

The issue Little has raised is with the county’s public defender system. In Indiana, counties can choose more than one system, and the one in Johnson County is set up so that public defenders are contracted by the courts on a part-time basis. Judges assign the cases to the attorneys, who also have their own private practices locally. At least 30 other counties across the state follow the same system as Johnson County, Little said.

The lawsuit claims that the system has led to local public defenders being overworked and unable to properly represent their clients, violating their constitutional rights. That includes not making visits to their clients in jail, not filing motions to suppress evidence and not taking cases to trial, and instead reaching plea agreements, Little said.

“No one could do that amount of cases,” Little said. “You cannot get that work done; it’s just impossible.”

Instead, Little said that counties should use the system Marion County and a few others use, where a separate department is created and public defenders are hired and not under the oversight of the county judges. The county could also get reimbursement from the state, allowing the program to grow, he said.

In its decision, the Indiana Court of Appeals said the public defenders have the obligation of deciding when their workload is too heavy, and that the lawsuit does not claim that the public defenders were forced to take on more work than they could handle by the courts, according to the filing. The court of appeals also said that if people charged with a crime have been unhappy with their representation, they have a chance to make that argument after their conviction when asking for a reduced sentence or a new trial, the filing said.

Little said the decision is saying that the system can’t be challenged and that every person who has a concern has to wait to be convicted to raise an issue with the process.

“If you buy that argument, there is no way to challenge the system,” he said.

That is why Little plans to appeal, he said.

Little and the clients he represents should at least get the chance to examine the system in Johnson County, see what has changed and what hasn’t and what should change, he said. This same problem has been examined in other states, and Indiana should note what changes have been made elsewhere, he said.

“The Johnson County system is a complete joke,” Little said.

“Johnson County is just one of many counties where this system goes on.”

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