Lawyers ask for millions after public-defender lawsuit victory
The judge will ultimately decide how much the lawyers are paid; the cities of Mount Vernon and Burlington argue that the amount being sought —- $2.4 million — is excessive.
Seattle Times staff reporter
The attorneys who successfully challenged the constitutionality of the public-defender systems in Mount Vernon and Burlington are seeking more than $2.4 million in attorneys’ fees, expenses and costs over the 2011 lawsuit.
Earlier this month, after nearly two years of litigation and a lengthy trial, U.S. District Judge Robert Lasnik found that the two cities routinely violated the rights of poor defendants of misdemeanor crimes by failing to ensure they had adequate legal representation.
The widely watched class-action lawsuit began in 2010 with an investigation by attorneys Matt Zuchetto and Toby Marshall into the troubled indigent defense system shared by the two Western Washington municipalities. They were later joined by the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington and the Seattle law firm of Perkins Coie.
It ended with an injunction issued by Lasnik ordering the cities to hire an independent supervisor to monitor the city’s public-defense operations. Lasnik voiced “grave doubts regarding the cities’ ability and political will to make the necessary changes on their own.” He retained jurisdiction over the system for three years.
The victory means the attorneys who represented the three plaintiffs in the lawsuit can seek reasonable attorneys’ fees, which will be determined by Lasnik after considering the difficulty of the case, its impact and other factors.
In seeking $2,425,916.52 in attorneys’ fees and $43,496.50 in expenses, the victorious lawyers argued that Lasnik’s “important ruling ... in this case will undoubtedly reverberate far beyond the cities’ borders, helping raise the public-defense standards so that indigent defendants across the nation get the assistance of counsel to which they are entitled,” according to a motion filed Wednesday.
Andrew Cooley, one of the attorneys representing the cities, said he believes the proposed fees are “very excessive.”
Cooley said attorneys’ fees will ultimately be paid by the Washington Cities Insurance Authority, a taxpayer-funded risk pool of about 100 Washington municipalities.
The lawsuit alleged the cities ran what amounted to a “meet and plead” justice system in which poor defendants often never met their court-appointed lawyers until minutes before they were to appear in court.
Lasnik found the system failed to meet the requirements of the Sixth Amendment.
The lawsuit drew the attention of the Department of Justice, which filed a rare brief urging the court to consider intervening in the system.
During a two-week trial last year, evidence showed that two now-departed public defenders working on contract for the cities, Richard Sybrandy and Morgan Witt, carried yearly contract caseloads of more than 1,000 clients each while also maintaining private practices.
The Washington State Bar last year adopted guidelines calling for maximum yearly misdemeanor caseloads of 400 clients.
In his ruling, Lasnik did not impose a caseload cap for the attorneys, something the ACLU had sought. However, he said the cities’ actions should be “informed” by the bar’s guidelines.
Mike Carter: 206-464-3706 or firstname.lastname@example.org