Public Defenders May Find Some Relief from Heavy Caseloads After Florida Supreme Court Decision

The Florida Supreme Court ruled Thursday that public defenders can move to refuse new cases if they are unable to provide competent representation based upon a conflict of interest, such as limited funding and excessive workload. The court did not state that those conditions exist at this time, but remanded for a decision on this point.

In 2008, Miami-Dade Public Defender Carlos Martinez asked a trial court judge for the right to refuse non-capital felony cases. The trial court found in favor of public defenders, but the Third Circuit Court of Appeals overturned. The Florida Supreme Court reversed the appeals court and stated that public defenders representing third-degree felony clients face excessive caseloads that often make it impossible to conduct proper interviews and investigation or adequately advise and represent clients.

At the time Martinez asked to refuse cases, attorneys in the public defender’s office each had approximately 429 cases. A national professional standards group sets the maximum caseload at 150. Martinez is excited about the Florida Supreme Court ruling, stating that “[t]his decision lifts the spirits of attorneys everywhere who, due to crippling caseloads, have been confronted with the difficult decision of picking and choosing which client gets legally competent and diligent representation and which do not.”

Click here to read more. Click here to read Legal Ethics Forum’s discussion of the opinion.

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