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Case Name Alford v. Johnson County Commissioners PD-IN-0003
Docket / Court 73D01-1601-PL-000003 ( State Court )
Additional Docket(s) No. 49D01-15-10-PL-033447  [ -33447 ]  Trial Court (IN)
State/Territory Indiana
Case Type(s) Indigent Defense
Case Summary
On October 8, 2015, a number of individuals who were arrested in Johnson County brought this lawsuit in Indiana Civil Court under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and state law against the Johnson County Commissioners as well as several judges and public defenders. The plaintiffs, represented by private counsel, ... read more >
On October 8, 2015, a number of individuals who were arrested in Johnson County brought this lawsuit in Indiana Civil Court under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and state law against the Johnson County Commissioners as well as several judges and public defenders. The plaintiffs, represented by private counsel, alleged a violation of their Sixth and Fourteenth Amendment right to counsel, a right also guaranteed under the Indiana Constitution (Art. 1 §13a). The suit alleged that the county had failed to impose reasonable caseload limits, had not established an oversight and monitoring system, and had not adequately funded the indigent defense system. The plaintiffs also alleged that the county operates a unconstitutional contract system that creates a conflict of interest between lawyers and judges: judges grant the public defense contracts and so attorneys might not fully advocate for their clients because they want to secure future contracts. The plaintiffs filed for class action status, but certification was not granted.

The case was opened as a new filing on January 21, 2016 in Indiana Superior Court, Shelby County. The defendants filed a motion to dismiss on March 29, 2016 and after hearing, Judge Robert W. Freese dismissed the case on January 30, 2017. The trial court dismissed primarily on the basis of a legal precedent, Platt v. State, finding that the plaintiffs' cases were not yet ripe for review as they were active criminal proceedings in the pre-trial stage. The court ruled that the effectiveness of the county's trial counsel and the system should not be decided until the criminal cases were concluded. Additionally, although the plaintiffs argued that the appointment of counsel is not a judicial function, the court disagreed and ruled that the judicial defendants were immune from all damage suits.

On December 29, 2017, the Court of Appeals of Indiana, Indiana's intermediate appellate court, affirmed the holding below. The court found that the Johnson County Commissioners were responsible for establishing, implementing, and maintaining the public defense system in Johnson County which individual judges and attorneys would carry out. Because this system for the defense of indigent defendants is accomplished through contracts, where each attorney contracts with a specific judge to represent criminal defendants in that particular court, a claim against the Johnson County Commissioners themselves would have to show systematic deprivations of constitutional rights upon which relief could be granted.

The Court of Appeals focused on the public defenders contracts and it explained that under these contracts, it was the individual attorney's responsibility to manage his or her caseload. The contracts themselves imposed an obligation on attorneys who contract to act as a public defender not to accept any case assignments or greater workload "than that which can be handled competently and managed with reasonable diligence and promptness." Because the complaint had not alleged that the judicial defendants were systematically compelling public defenders to accept case assignments and undertake more work than they can competently handle, even after Public Defenders had declined a case assignment due to an excessive workload, the complaint actually contained a series of individualized claims for relief, not a systematic deprivation of constitutional rights.

The court did recognize the argument that the Johnson County public defender system may suffer from not employing enough attorneys under contract to act as public defenders, but the court explained that solving that problem would require a greater appropriation from the Johnson County Commissioners, which it said was not the kind of relief the plaintiffs were requesting in this case. There were no allegations that the judicial defendants had requested appropriations from the Johnson County Council and been denied.

The court found the same faulty premise defeated the plaintiffs third-party beneficiary claim against both the judicial defendants and the public defenders for breach of the Public Defenders' contracts. According to the Court of Appeals, these claims did not constitute systematic deprivations, but instead only individualized claims for relief based on individual breaches of the Public Defenders' contracts. These breach of contract claims were thus really claims of legal malpractice against the Public Defenders, and the claims failed because the plaintiffs had not alleged the necessary prejudice resulting from the outcome of their criminal cases. The plaintiffs could not do this because--with the exception of one plaintiff, who accepted a plea deal but did not include the details of the deal in the complaint--there had not yet been an outcome in the plaintiffs' respective criminal cases.

The Indiana Court of Appeals denied rehearing on February 8, 2018, and the Indiana Supreme Court denied transfer on May 24, 2018. The case is presumably closed.

Abigail DeHart - 05/24/2017
Chris Pollack - 04/16/2019

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Issues and Causes of Action
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Constitutional Clause
Assistance of counsel (6th Amendment)
Due Process
Access to lawyers or judicial system
Conflict of interest
Quality of representation
Plaintiff Type
Private Plaintiff
Causes of Action 42 U.S.C. § 1983
State law
Defendant(s) Johnson County Commissioners
Plaintiff Description Individuals who were arrested in Johnson County, claiming they had not been adequately represented due to an underfunded and overburdened public defender system.
Class action status sought Yes
Class action status granted No
Filed Pro Se No
Prevailing Party Defendant
Public Int. Lawyer No
Nature of Relief None
Source of Relief None
Filed 10/08/2015
Case Closing Year 2018
Case Ongoing No
Additional Resources
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  Securing Reasonable Caseloads: Ethics and Law in Public Defense
Date: 2011
By: Norman Lefstein (Indiana University--Indianapolis Faculty)
Citation: (ABA 2011)
[ Detail ] [ External Link ]

  Justice Denied: America's Continuing Neglect of Our Constitutional Right to Counsel.
Date: Apr. 14, 2009
By: National Right to Counsel Committee (The Constitution Project)
Citation: National Right to Counsel Committee, Justice Denied: America's Continuing Neglect of Our Constitutional Right to Counsel (2009)
[ Detail ] [ PDF ] [ External Link ]

  The Third Generation of Indigent Defense Litigation
New York University Review of Law and Social Change
Date: 2009
By: Cara Drinan (Columbus School of Law, Catholic University Faculty)
Citation: 33 N.Y.U. Rev. L. & Soc. Change 427 (2009)
[ Detail ] [ External Link ]

  Indigent Defense Reform: The Role of Systemic Litigation in Operationalizing the Gideon Right to Counsel
Date: May 7, 2007
By: Vidhya K. Reddy (Washington University in St. Louis Law Student)
[ Detail ] [ PDF ]

No docket sheet currently in the collection
General Documents
PD-IN-0003-0001.pdf | External Link | Detail
Date: 08/08/2015
Order and Entry of Judgment on Defendants' Motion to Dismiss
PD-IN-0003-0002.pdf | External Link | Detail
Date: 01/30/2017
Order and Entry of Judgment on Judicial Defendants' Motion to Dismiss
PD-IN-0003-0003.pdf | External Link | Detail
Date: 01/30/2017
Opinion (92 N.E.3d 653)
PD-IN-0003-0004.pdf | WESTLAW| LEXIS | Detail
Date: 12/29/2017
Source: Westlaw
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Judges Freese, Robert W. Court not on record show/hide docs
PD-IN-0003-0002 | PD-IN-0003-0003
Kirsch, James Court not on record show/hide docs
Plaintiff's Lawyers Adams, Samuel (Indiana) show/hide docs
Little, Jonathan (Indiana) show/hide docs
Sutherlin, Michael K. (Indiana) show/hide docs
Wegg, Jessica (Indiana) show/hide docs

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