Mount Vernon and Burlington systematically violated the constitutional rights of poor defendants to effective legal counsel in their city courts, a federal judge ruled Wednesday, blaming city officials for being “willfully blind” to the effects of their cost-cutting.

U.S. District Judge Robert Lasnik ordered the cities to hire a part-time public defense supervisor to oversee whether poor defendants are receiving adequate legal counsel, saying “the court has grave doubts regarding the cities’ ability and political will to make the necessary changes on their own.”

The state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union sued the two cities two years ago, alleging public defenders there were so overworked that they amounted to little more than “a warm body with a law degree.”

The judge agreed. Lasnik’s ruling Wednesday, following a two-week trial in June, could have broad ramifications for how all cities provide legal help to the poor: “In the state of Washington, there are undoubtedly a number of municipalities whose public defense systems would, if put under a microscope, be found wanting,” he wrote.

Lawyers involved said they believed it was the first time in the nation’s history that a federal court had appointed a supervisor to oversee a public defense agency.

Sarah Dunne, the ACLU of Washington’s legal director, said in an emailed statement she was thrilled to see the ruling come this year, which marks the 50th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Gideon v. Wainright that the right to counsel applies in state courts as well as federal ones.

“The right to be represented by an attorney is essential to ensuring that everyone — rich and poor alike — has a fair day in court,” Dunne said. “We’ve got a historic ruling enforcing that principle for towns in Washington.”

Andrew Cooley, who represented the cities, said he was gratified the judge did not impose a caseload limit on their public defenders.

He also said the cities have doubled their public-defense budget since the lawsuit was filed, and it remained unclear whether they could stomach spending any more.

“We’ll cost out our options,” Burlington City Administrator Bryan Harrison said. “… We’re not going to defy a court order based on a budgetary limit.”

At least in the near term, Burlington will likely use some general-fund money to pay its portion of hiring the federal supervisor, Harrison said. The City Council approved a 2014 budget last week, but amendments in light of the court order could come up at the council’s next meeting on Dec. 12, he said.

Officials from Burlington and Mount Vernon said they are still weighing what to do from here, but another option is to simply disband their municipal courts, leaving Skagit County District Court to handle those cases.

“Two city councils are going to have to make that decision,” Harrison said.

Burlington’s City Council last week approved a one-year extension to its contract with Mountain Law, which took over the cities’ public defense cases after the lawsuit was filed. That extended contract will now only serve as a stopgap until the cities can negotiate terms that comply with the judge’s ruling.

Lasnik noted that two lawyers who formerly handled public defense cases for the cities each took on about 1,000 cases a year from 2009 to 2011 and often spent less than an hour per case. There was almost no evidence they investigated their clients’ cases, met with clients confidentially or performed any legal analysis of the cases, the judge said.

Instead, they simply assumed police had done their jobs correctly.

“The services they offered to their indigent clients amounted to little more than a ‘meet and plead’ system,” he wrote.

Since then, Mountain Law has made some improvements, including tracking caseloads in an attempt to comply with new limits set by the state Supreme Court last year. Those improvements were a focus of the cities’ argument at trial and of city officials’ reaction to the ruling.

“We’re committed to providing Sixth Amendment indigent defense,” Mount Vernon City Attorney Kevin Rogerson said.

Nevertheless, the Mountain Law lawyers also remain overworked and underfunded, Lasnik said.

Ironically, Lasnik said the failings of the public defenders in Mount Vernon and Burlington didn’t necessarily result in their clients getting worse deals. With a note of chagrin, he said the penny-pinching of city administrators faced with tough budgetary times had also hit prosecutors, who in turn offered “overly lenient plea deals.”

But that’s not the point, Lasnik said: “Advising a client to take a fantastic plea deal in an obstruction of justice or domestic violence case may appear to be effective advocacy, but not if the client is innocent, the charge is defective, or the plea would have disastrous consequences for his or her immigration status.”

— Information from The Associated Press and Staff Reporter Gina Cole: 360-416-2148,, Twitter: @Gina_SVH,

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