In February 2002, indigent defendants with criminal cases pending in Montana state courts in Butte-Silver Bow, Missoula, Glacier, Teton, Flathead, Lake, and Ravalli Counties filed a class action lawsuit against these counties and the state pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983. The plaintiffs, represented ...
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In February 2002, indigent defendants with criminal cases pending in Montana state courts in Butte-Silver Bow, Missoula, Glacier, Teton, Flathead, Lake, and Ravalli Counties filed a class action lawsuit against these counties and the state pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983. The plaintiffs, represented by the ACLU, the ACLU of Montana, and a private attorney, filed in the Montana First Judicial District Court, challenging the adequacy of the public defense system in the state of Montana. Specifically, plaintiffs claimed that Montana (1) failed to provide constitutionally and statutorily adequate legal representation to indigent adults in criminal cases, (2) failed to ensure that the State's Appellate Defender Commission propose to the Montana Supreme Court minimum standards to which all trial and appellate public defenders, including locally appointed private counsel, must conform, and (3) failed to ensure that the State's Appellate Defender Commission keep current, and supply to all justices and judges in the state, a statewide roster of competent attorneys eligible for appointment. The plaintiffs asserted violations of the Sixth and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution, Sections 4, 17, and 24 of Article II of the Montana Constitution, and other provisions of state law and sought injunctive and declaratory relief.
In 2003, the ACLU retained the National Legal Aid & Defender Association (NLADA) as an expert to conduct an assessment of the effectiveness of criminal defense services rendered to the indigent in Montana. This culminated in a report that identified numerous deficiencies in the state's defense system, and substantially supported the plaintiffs' allegations. See NLADA Expert Report, Aug. 4, 2004, at 1-3
. The NLADA report focused on the state's failure to comply with the American Bar Association's (ABA) Ten Principles of a Public Defense Delivery System. These ten principles were adopted by the ABA in 2002 as guidelines that state's indigent defense systems should meet. The NLADA report concluded that Montana's system failed to meet the majority of these ten principles.
On May 7, 2004, while the NLADA's assessment was still on-going, the parties entered into a Stipulation and Order of Postponement of Trial to allow the 2005 Montana legislature to enact legislation that would adequately address Montana's indigent defense system. On April 16, 2005, the Montana legislature passed Senate Bill 146, titled The Montana Public Defender Act, which was signed into law on April 28, 2005. The Act substantially reformed the state's public defender system. It established a statewide public defender system, as well as an 11-member public defender commission that would hire Montana's first Chief Public Defender, establish uniform standards for the provision of indigent legal services, provide funding for the use of investigators and experts, and oversee training and technical assistance.
After the Act was passed, the defendants moved to dismiss the case on grounds of mootness. Montana argued that since the Act would entirely replace the system challenged by the plaintiffs, the case was rendered moot. The plaintiffs conceded that the Act addressed their substantive concerns, but expressed concern about the adequacy of funding available to implement the law, and argued that the case would not be rendered moot until the new system was actually in place.
On January 25, 2006, the court (Judge Thomas C. Honzel) granted the defendants' motion to dismiss. White v. Martz, 2006 Mont. Dist. LEXIS 136, Docket No. CDV-2002-133, *1. (Mont. Dist. Ct. Jan. 12, 2006)
. Judge Honzel agreed that there was no way of knowing whether the new system would be adequately funded, but stressed that any challenge to the Act would in fact be a completely new lawsuit. Accordingly, Judge Honzel dismissed the suit.Michelle Reed - 07/11/2007
Greg in den Berken - 11/11/2014