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Originally published Sunday, April 28, 2013 at 4:09 PM

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Guest: Strengthening public defense on the 50th anniversary of Gideon v. Wainwright

The state Supreme Court’s ruling to lower caseloads for public defenders ensures people’s right to just treatment in court, writes guest columnist Barbara Madsen.

Special to The Times

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MOST adults in our country know by now that they have a right to an attorney whether or not they can afford one if they are charged with a crime.

Less understood is the difference between the mere presence of a defense attorney and the assistance of an attorney who has the time and training to effectively represent their clients.

Effective legal assistance is the core intent behind the right to an attorney, and effectiveness is the goal of the new public-defense standards adopted by the state Supreme Court. Most of those standards — addressing qualifications, use of interns, appeals, administrative costs and more — are now required for public defense attorneys in Washington courts.

However, one important standard involving caseload limits is still pending.

Earlier this month the Supreme Court approved an extension for cities and counties to adopt caseload limits so jurisdictions and the Washington State Office of Public Defense can further study the time required for different cases. The new caseload limits will become effective in January in 2015.

Adopting standards that limit public defenders’ caseloads has caused concerns among local and state lawmakers about the potential cost. The Supreme Court understands this reality, but the right to just treatment in a court of law for all is a core principle of our nation and our state. It must be protected.

A conviction can mean loss of freedom, even loss of life. A conviction can mean a lifetime of consequences, affecting the ability to get a job, housing, a loan, to keep custody of children, to volunteer, even to vote. Public trust in our justice system depends on people knowing they have been treated fairly and their rights have been protected.

It is interesting timing that we make these strides toward improving Washington’s public-defense system while the nation is celebrating the 50th anniversary of the U. S. Supreme Court’s Gideon v. Wainwright decision on March 18, 1963.

The unanimous decision held that any person charged with a crime has a right to an attorney. Before the Gideon case, defense attorneys were generally provided only for death-penalty cases or cases considered “complex.” Clarence Gideon was a poor drifter in Florida charged with a minor burglary. The lower court refused his request for an attorney and he was sentenced to five years in prison.

After his handwritten appeal was accepted by the U.S. Supreme Court and the Gideon decision was issued, he was retried with the aid of an attorney and found not guilty.

Washington can be proud that as far back as 1854, territorial lawmakers established a right to counsel at public cost if a defendant was unable to hire an attorney. It was the very first meeting of territorial lawmakers and was the beginning of the public-defense story in Washington, but not the end.

New chapters of the story were written by the Gideon decision, and when state lawmakers enacted some public-defense standards in RCW 10.101.30, and in 2004 when The Seattle Times published its investigative series, “Unequal Defense: The Failed Promise of Justice for the Poor.” The Times spoke with one public defender carrying more than 500 cases.

That same year, the Washington State Bar Association’s Blue Ribbon Panel on Criminal Defense concluded many jurisdictions were ignoring public-defense standards, jeopardizing the ability of even the most dedicated attorney to adequately represent his or her client.

These and other reports sparked our latest efforts to address flaws in the system, but the new standards are not the end of the story. Attorneys, judges, court administrators and local lawmakers must find the best way to implement standards to better protect the rights and freedoms of the people of Washington.

Barbara Madsen is serving her second term as chief justice of the Washington state Supreme Court.

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