COA affirms dismissal of Johnson County public defender suit

A case challenging the constitutionality of Johnson County’s contract-based public defender system will not proceed after the Indiana Court of Appeals on Friday upheld the dismissal of the case against several Johnson County judges, attorneys and commissioners.

The case of Kenneth Alford et al v. Johnson County Commissioners et al., 73A04-1702-PL-223, began in October 2015, when a group of Johnson County defendants with court-appointed attorneys sued the county commissioners — who are responsible for establishing a public defense system —  judges and public defenders for failing to provide adequate representation. The complaint alleged the county’s system of contracting with attorneys to provide indigent defense services had resulted in public defenders handling caseloads well in excess of accepted maximums. Thus, the defendants alleged they were pressured into taking plea deals and were rarely able to meet with their counsel in person.

The indigent defendants sought declaratory judgment that Johnson County’s provision of indigent defense services is unconstitutional. Additionally, they moved for injunctive relief requesting, among other things, “the creation of public defender services, which are not under the Courts’ supervision or financial control, which are adequately funded, and which conform to the caseload standards set by the American Bar Association and the Indiana Public Defender Commission.”

The Shelby Superior Court dismissed the case, determining the issue of whether it could declare Johnson County’s system unconstitutional was non-justiciable. The trial court also found that compelling the creation of public defender services was an impermissible “request to rewrite the statutory scheme of public defender services.”

During oral arguments before the Indiana Court of Appeals on Dec. 7, Jessica Wegg, counsel for the defendants, urged the court to reinstate the case under Gideon v. Wainwright, 372 U.S. 335 (1963) and United States v. Cronic, 466 U.S. 648 (1984). The judges and commissioners, however, argued the case was not yet ripe under Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668 (1984).

While the Court of Appeals noted in a Friday opinion that it did not discount or minimize the indigent defendants’ allegations, their complaint nonetheless failed to properly raise claims for relief. Judge James Kirsch wrote for the unanimous appellate panel that Indiana’s Rules of Professional Conduct require attorneys to manage their own caseloads, so the entire Johnson County public defense system cannot be considered systematically flawed.

Further, the complaint did not allege the county judges compelled the public defenders to accept excessive caseloads, but rather only alleges the public defenders failed to provide effective assistance, Kirsch wrote. Such a claim is one for individual relief pursuant to criminal trial procedures, he wrote.

Kirsch went on to write that if Johnson County does employ too few public defenders, the remedy would be to seek additional funds from the commissioners. But because the complaint does not allege the judges are unable to seek those funds, there is no relief available.

The panel also rejected the indigent defendants’ third-part beneficiary breach of contract claim, finding again that the complaint does not allege a systematic deprivation of the rights they assert under the public defender contracts. Rather, the breach of contract allegations actually raise issues of legal malpractice, the court ruled.

Friday’s ruling comes as a statewide task force is in the information-gathering phase of its work toward improving Indiana’s indigent defense services. The Task Force on Public Defense was formed after the Sixth Amendment Center released a report last year criticizing Indiana’s provision of indigent defense services, including its use of contract-based public defense in some counties.  

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