Public defenders brace for possible caseload limits

WASHINGTON STATE -- Action News is digging deeper into a case before the state Supreme Court would cut caseloads for public defenders.

The law of the land is causing major stress for our courts. Hundreds of defendants and a limited number of lawyers has Washington's Supreme Court facing a big decision. Justices could limit how many cases a public defender can manage to 400 a year.

"We'd double the amount of public defenders we'd need," says Eric Hsu, lead public defender in Franklin County. "A lot of cases that should be resolved early are just going to drag out."

Many cases are for minor things like driving with a suspended license. As a result, most defendants reach a plea deal during arraignment and take virtually no time at all. Under the proposal pushed by the Washington State Bar Association, any case, whether it takes half a day, or half a year, would count toward a case limit.
Hsu argues lawyers won't be able to help defendants once they reach the limit, leaving defendants without representation and the chance to make a deal.

It takes a lot of time and money to try cases at state courts. It's because of those reasons why public defenders worry more trials can lead to an even greater strain on county budgets.

"We have to count it as a full case," Hsu says. "It's hindering our ability to provide representation at arraignment."

The Supreme Court is expected to decide on the new rules by this summer. Any changes would take effect in January, potentially leading to more trials, and more tax money spent on our courts.