ACS is pleased to distribute “When Excessive Public Defender Workloads Violate the Sixth Amendment Right to Counsel Without a Showing of Prejudice,” an Issue Brief by Laurence A. Benner, Professor of Law and Managing Director of Criminal Justice Programs at California Western School of Law. This paper is part of a series of Issue Briefs that ACS is publishing focused on ideas for a role that the federal government can play in helping improve indigent defense systems around the country. This series builds on the interest in pursuing reform expressed by Attorney General Eric Holder, Congress, and other federal policymakers to address the crisis in indigent defense that has existed since the Supreme Court’s 1963 decision in Gideon v. Wainwright, the landmark case establishing the right to counsel for indigent defendants.
In his Issue Brief, Professor Benner explains how, by focusing on the absence of counsel at a critical stage of proceedings, rather than on the ineffectiveness of counsel, a set of claims could be considered outside of the analysis required by Strickland v. Washington. Strickland’s two-pronged test requires that ineffective assistance of counsel claims demonstrate that counsel’s deficient performance be both professionally unreasonable and prejudicial. As Professor Benner explains, his litigation strategy avoids the prejudice prong:
As Gideon v. Wainwright and its progeny established, the Sixth Amendment guarantees the assistance of counsel at each critical stage of the proceedings against an accused. The strategy outlined here is premised upon the argument that the period between arraignment and trial—the investigatory stage—is a critical stage at which the accused is entitled to counsel’s assistance. In sum, the argument is that because excessive caseloads make it impossible for defense counsel to conduct a reasonable investigation into factual innocence and/or mitigating circumstances relevant to punishment, this inability to provide “core” assistance of counsel renders counsel constructively absent at a critical stage of the proceedings.
The author describes how the aforementioned litigation strategy could be incorporated into the federal government’s response to the indigent defense crisis via legislation such as the Justice for All Reauthorization Act, which would, among other things, create a federal cause of action for equitable and declaratory relief to address patterns of deprivations of Sixth Amendment rights.