home > legal work
The Sixth Amendment guarantees every person accused of a crime the right to an attorney for his or her defense, regardless of ability to pay, and the Fourteenth Amendment guarantees all citizens equal rights regardless of race or national origin. Yet all too often, these rights are violated by indigent defense systems that leave low-income people, including many people of color, without adequate representation.
Utah ranks behind almost all other states in its provision of indigent defense. The state provides no funding for indigent defense; instead, Utah shifts the burden of complying with the constitutional mandates of Gideon and Argersinger to the counties. Each county is charged by statute to provide indigent defense as it sees fit. Accordingly, a patchwork of models exists across the state. The majority of counties rely on contracts with private attorneys to represent indigent defendants; not all of these private attorneys are able to devote all of their time to contracted indigent clients as assigned. A few counties, Utah and Salt Lake, have formal public defender offices. Finally, some counties have no contract in place but instead rely on private attorneys who bill the county by the hour. According to a report issued by the National Legal Aid and Defender Association (“NLADA”), Utah ranks last in the organization’s assessment of state compliance with the constitutional obligations enunciated in Gideon. (From an article by ACLU Legislative and Policy Counsel, Marina Lowe, published in The Utah State Bar Journal)
The ACLU and law students from the University of Utah have spent substantial time observing court proceedings throughout the State of Utah as part of a larger investigation into Utah's constitutionally inadequate indigent criminal defense system. The time is ripe for Utah to overhaul its current system, whether through the courts, the legislature or a combination of both.
To commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Gideon v. Wainwright decision, we invite you to a free screening of the award winning HBO film "Gideon's Army," followed by a panel discussion to explore more deeply the impact of these issues on Utah.
April 1st, 2013
Salt Lake City Downtown Library Auditorium
Free and open to the public
More info >>
ACLU OpEd Highlights Need For Utah Criminal Justice Reform
Posted 3/18/13 - In an opinion piece published in the Salt Lake Tribune on 3/17/13, ACLU of Utah Executive Director Karen McCreary, and Legal Director John Mejia explain our concerns, "For several years now we have been ringing the alarm bell that Utah is failing to fulfill Gideon’s promise to its people. Utah is one of only two states where there is no direct state funding, oversight or other assistance for public defense. Instead, Utah places an unfunded mandate on counties to provide indigent defense. We thus have a patchwork of 29 different methods of providing defense, with varying funding and operational standards."
Read the entire piece "Our right to a lawyer" (PDF) >>
ACLU of Utah Issues Report Detailing Chronic Underfunding, Other Systemic Failures in Public Defender Services
Posted 8/24/11 -The ACLU of Utah has issued a 95-page report, “Failing Gideon: Utah’s Flawed County-By-County Public Defender System,” documenting the state’s and counties’ chronic failures to fund or oversee trial-level public defender services in Utah. In addition to analyzing public and other records obtained from each of Utah’s 29 counties, the ACLU of Utah and students from the University of Utah, S.J. Quinney College of Law Civil Rights Clinic, conducted interviews and observed court proceedings across the state. As the report details:
- Public defense budgets are often only 25-35% of the amounts budgeted for County Attorney’s Offices (i.e., the prosecution).
- In some counties, public defender caseloads are so high that they may have only 10 hours (or less) to spend on each felony case.
- In some counties, contract terms may result in public defenders receiving only $400 (or less) per felony.
- Public defender contracts usually are awarded to the lowest bidder, regardless of experience.
- Public defender contracts often are awarded based on the direct recommendation of the County Attorney, creating a clear conflict of interest.
Read the press release >>
Read the executive summary (PDF) >>
Read the full report (PDF) >>
Read a county-by-county comparison chart (PDF) >>
Read more about the ACLU of Utah's Indigent Defense Project >>
Second County Seat episode, continues to examine Indigent Defense in Utah
4/29/12 - ACLU of Utah Legal Director, John Mejia, joins the panel discussion.
Watch the episode (thecountyseat.tv) >>
TV Show Explores Utah's Constitutionally Inadequate Indigent Defense System
Posted 6/23/11 - ACLU of Utah Legal Director Darcy Goddard joins a panel discussion exploring Utah's constitutionally inadequate system for providing indigent criminal defense on the June 19, 2011, episode of "The County Seat" (airing Sundays at 8:00 a.m. on ABC Channel 4.) The federal constitution guarantees everyone the right to adequate representation in criminal cases, including those individuals who cannot afford to hire their own lawyer (i.e., those who are indigent). Utah ranks behind almost all other states in its lack of funding and oversight of indigent defense services throughout the state. The State of Utah provides no state funding or support for indigent defense, choosing instead to delegate the entire responsibility and cost to the various counties. Not surprisingly, this has resulted in an unworkable patchwork of public defender systems that leave hundreds, or even thousands, of Utahns each year at serious risk of losing their constitutionally protected right to adequate representation in their criminal cases.
Watch the show >>
Reproductive Freedom, Indigent Defense
State v. J.M.S. (2011)
J.M.S., an indigent juvenile from a small rural Eastern Utah town, allegedly attempted to terminate her pregnancy in May of 2009, by paying someone to beat her. Based on the faulty argument that the method by which J.M.S. sought to terminate her pregnancy was not an allowable "abortion" "procedure" under then-existing Utah law, the State charged J.M.S. with Criminal Solicitation to Commit Murder. The juvenile court correctly determined that the charges against J.M.S. were unsustainable and dismissed them, because Utah law explicitly provides that women who seek to terminate their own pregnancies cannot be prosecuted criminally for those decisions. The State appealed bringing the case before the Utah Supreme Court. The ACLU of Utah, sought permission to submit an amicus curiae ("friend of the Court") brief on behalf of J.M.S., offering its expertise on issues of privacy, reproductive freedom, and criminal defense. The Court denied the ACLU motion and heard the case on April 13, 2011. A decision is pending. Read more >>
Victims Of Human Rights Violations Denied Access To Justice In U.S., Says New ACLU Report
Posted 12/10/10 - Access to justice for victims of civil and human rights violations has been severely curbed over the last decade, according to a report released today by the American Civil Liberties Union. The report shows how indigent defendants on death row, prisoners suffering abuses in prison, immigrants in unfair removal proceedings, torture victims, domestic violence survivors and victims of racial discrimination, among others, are consistently denied access to the courts and effective remedies as a result of recent laws and court decisions.
Read the press release >>
Read the report "Slamming the Courthouse Doors: Denial of Access to Justice and Remedy in America" >>
Read a blog post by the ACLU Human Rights Program >>
Fair trial integral to American values Posted 6/21/10 - An Op-Ed by Darcy Goddard, Legal Director for the ACLU of Utah, published in the Deseret News. No matter what you think of the death penalty, we can all agree that capital cases are riveting. They're like a seven-car pileup on the highway; we just can't look away.
This past week, Ronnie Lee Gardner became the third person since 1976 to be executed by firing squad in this country. His case generated a worldwide media frenzy, intended to captivate us all. Read more >>
ACLU of Utah Urges Weber Court to Reject Attempt to Deny Capital Defendant's Right to Highly Qualified Court-Appointed Defense Counsel
Posted 4/22/10 - As part of its on-going indigent defense project, the ACLU of Utah filed a motion in Weber County District Court seeking permission to submit a "friend of the court" brief in the case State v. Ethridge. Jacob Ethridge, who is indigent, faces capital murder charges stemming from the 2008 deaths of two women. Weber County, which opted out of the statewide Indigent Capital Defense Trust Fund (which provides funds to all participating counties for the defense of capital cases), is trying to replace Mr. Ethridge's court-appointed attorneys, who have been on the case for over a year and a half, with two new lawyers who have general service public defender contracts with Weber County.
Mr. Ethridge's current attorneys were appointed while they were with the Weber County Public Defender's Association ("Weber PDA"), which Weber County used to utilize for all its indigent defense needs, both capital and non-capital. In an effort to save approximately $100,000 per year, however, the Weber County Commission voted to eliminate the Weber PDA beginning on January 1, 2010. Weber County now contracts with individual attorneys for indigent defense services.
The proposed new lead attorney, who is currently under contract with Weber County to provide juvenile criminal defense and also maintains a small private practice, has never tried a capital case. Weber County is asking that he add into his existing contract, in addition to his current caseload, the capital defense of Mr. Ethridge. As the ACLU of Utah points out, however:
"Weber County, having voluntarily opted out of the [Fund] and having consented to the appointment of [current defense counsel 1.5 years ago], may [not now] unilaterally decide to override Mr. Ethridge’s constitutional right to maintain the appointed counsel of his choice on the sole basis that it may save the county money.
"Having chosen to prosecute this matter as a capital case, Weber County has placed at stake not only Mr. Ethridge’s liberty, but also his life. Particularly when an individual’s life is on the line, Weber County’s (or the State’s) interest in saving money simply cannot trump an individual’s Sixth Amendment right to counsel or his Fifth and Fourteenth Amendment rights to due process and equal protection."
Read the ACLU of Utah's full motion here (PDF) >>
Read Legal Director Darcy M. Goddard's Affidavit in Support of the motion here (PDF) >>
Affidavit Exhibit A (PDF) >>
Affidavit Exhibit B (PDF) >>
Affidavit Exhibit C (PDF) >>
Read an article about the ACLU of Utah's motion in the Ogden Standard Examiner here >>
Read an article about the ACLU of Utah's motion in the Salt Lake Tribune here >>
5/7/10 SL Tribune article - Ogden judge says murder suspect can keep his original attorneys >>
Investigation of Utah's Indigent Criminal Defense System Reveals More Violations in Box Elder County Justice Court
Posted 4/7/10 - Over the past several months, staff from the ACLU and law students from the University of Utah S.J. Quinney College of Law have been investigating Utah's constitutionally inadequate indigent criminal defense system. As we reported on February 24, observations of Judge Kevin Christensen in Box Elder County revealed such serious and systemic issues, involving not only violations of the defendants' constitutional rights but also potential violations of the Judicial Code of Conduct, that the ACLU raised its concerns directly with Chief Justice Durham. The ACLU's letter to the Chief Justice caught the attention of the Salt Lake City Weekly, which last week published an article condemning similar practices by Judge Christensen while simultaneously applauding the ACLU's and the law school's efforts to reform the indigent defense system statewide.
Read the City Weekly article here >>
The ACLU continues to monitor Judge Christensen's courtroom. Further observations reveal Judge Christensen's continued failure to protect the constitutional rights of criminal defendants, including not only the right to counsel but also the right to fully and fairly understand the charges against them, and the consequences thereof, before pleading guilty. The ACLU raised these issues with Judge Christensen and the Chief Justice late last week.
Read the ACLU's April letter here >>
Judge Christensen’s conduct is symptomatic of the larger problems that result when a state, as has the State of Utah, abdicates to the individual counties all responsibility for indigent criminal defense. Until the State of Utah steps up and ensures that judges like Christensen receive the supervision, oversight, and training they need to do their jobs, indigent criminal defendants will continue to suffer deprivations of their constitutional rights.
U.S. Attorney General Announces New Indigent Defense Program
Posted 2/26/10 - The ACLU of Utah applauds Attorney General Eric Holder's recently announced "Access to Justice" initiative, a new program that will seek to help low-income people receive adequate legal representation. Despite the Sixth Amendment's guarantee that every criminal defendant have access to a competent lawyer, many states--including Utah--do not keep that promise. A recent nationwide survey ranked Utah's indigent criminal defense services worst in the nation. Utah is also one of only two states in the country that provide no statewide funding whatsoever to pay for indigent criminal defense, shifting the entire funding responsibility to individual counties throughout the state. The ACLU of Utah hopes that its own efforts to investigate and rectify inadequacies in the indigent criminal defense system here in Utah, coupled with the national program just announced by Attorney General Holder, will finally result in a much-needed overhaul to Utah's current system, whether through the courts, the legislature, or a combination of both.
Read the National Public Radio story on Attorney General Holder's "Access to Justice" initiative here >>
Investigation of Utah's Indigent Criminal Defense System Reveals Significant Violations in Box Elder County Justice Court
Posted 2/24/10 - Over the past several months, staff from the ACLU and law students from the University of Utah have spent substantial time observing court proceedings throughout the State of Utah as part of their larger investigation into Utah's constitutionally inadequate indigent criminal defense system. Observations of Judge Kevin Christensen in Box Elder County revealed such serious and systemic issues, involving not only violations of the defendants' constitutional rights but also potential violations of the Judicial Code of Conduct, that the ACLU felt it necessary to express its concerns directly to Chief Justice Durham.
Read the ACLU of Utah's letter (PDF) >>
Read an article about Utah's constitutionally inadequate criminal defense system >>
Indigent Defense in Utah: Constitutionally Adequate?
Posted 1/4/10 - Utah ranks behind almost all other states in its provision of indigent defense. The state provides no funding for indigent defense; instead, Utah shifts the burden to each county creating a patchwork of models across the state. An article by ACLU Legislative and Policy Counsel, Marina Lowe, published in The Utah State Bar Journal examines this problem.
Read the article (PDF)>>
Indigent Defense in Utah Ranked Almost Last in Nation
Posted 12/8/09 - "Utah ranks first in the nation when it comes to literacy, volunteerism, Jell-O Consumption and birth rates. Unfortunately, Utah's ranking dips dramatically when it comes to providing for indigent defense." An article by ACLU Legislative and Policy Counsel, Marina Lowe, published in The Defender, the journal of the Utah Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.
Read the article (PDF) >>