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Tuesday, April 6, 2004
Grant County faces lawsuit over public-defense system

By Ken Armstrong
Seattle Times staff reporter

A class-action lawsuit filed yesterday alleges that Grant County's public-defense system "regularly and systematically deprives" accused felons of their constitutional right to effective representation.

The suit, filed in Superior Court in neighboring Kittitas County, alleges that Grant County has allowed its public-defense system "to descend into chaos" and has failed to protect the integrity of its criminal courts.

Grant County, under the direction of its Board of Commissioners, has failed to ensure that public defenders are qualified; have reasonable caseloads; are sufficiently monitored and adequately funded; are available at all crucial stages of a prosecution and operate independently, the lawsuit says.

Grant County commissioners could not be reached yesterday for comment.

The lawsuit names, as plaintiffs, a county taxpayer and three defendants facing felony charges. But they ask that the suit cover all indigent defendants who are, or will be, facing felony charges in Grant County Superior Court.

Hundreds of defendants have felony cases pending, and thousands will face such charges in the future, the lawsuit says.

The plaintiffs' lawyers are Columbia Legal Services, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Washington, and two law firms with offices in Seattle: Perkins Coie and Garvey Schubert Barer.

Julya Hampton, legal program director with the ACLU of Washington, called Grant County "one of the most stark illustrations of our indigent-defense system gone awry."

She said a goal of the lawsuit is to force Grant County to abide by caseload limits and other public-defense standards endorsed by the Washington State Bar Association.

Pat Arthur, an attorney with Columbia Legal Services, said she hopes "the county will be held accountable so that the kind of breakdown we're seeing now never happens again."

The lawsuit alleges that Grant County officials for years have known of "constitutional deficiencies" in their public-defense system, but have failed to act. The suit cites four cases in which reviewing courts reversed a criminal conviction based upon a finding that court-appointed counsel provided ineffective assistance.

In addition, the state bar has asked that two longtime public defenders in Grant County Superior Court — Thomas J. Earl and Guillermo Romero — be disbarred.

Bar hearing officers have concluded that Earl and Romero each asked indigent defendants or their relatives to pay for legal services that were supposed to be free.

Grant County allowed Earl to continue representing indigent defendants and to administer the Superior Court public-defense contract even after the hearing officer made his findings, the lawsuit notes. It wasn't until February, when Earl's law license was suspended pending a decision on disbarment, that Grant County terminated his contract.

Grant County has since notified 49 other local attorneys that they could start receiving court-appointed cases — even though some of those attorneys have no criminal-defense experience.

The lawsuit says that conscription system "virtually assures that indigent persons will be represented by unqualified attorneys and will be deprived of effective assistance of counsel."

Ken Armstrong: 206-464-3730 or

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