- Associated Press - Friday, January 22, 2016

BOISE, Idaho (AP) - An Idaho judge has dismissed a lawsuit against the state seeking to improve the public defense system in Idaho, saying the case did not merit judicial action because it is not up to the courts to legislate standards.

“The court is sympathetic with plaintiff’s plight. However, the case invites the court to make speculative assumptions regarding the outcomes of individual cases,” 4th District Judge Samuel Hoagland said in his ruling. He said the lawsuit asks him to presume “that all indigent criminal defendants in all counties are receiving the same ineffective assistance of counsel, and then issue blanket orders halting all criminal prosecutions until the issues are resolved.”

The American Civil Liberties Union of Idaho sued the state in June contending that state officials have known for years that Idaho’s public defense system was broken and prevented defendants from receiving adequate legal representation guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution. Though the ACLU has brought similar cases over public defense systems in parts of Michigan, Washington state and other regions, attorneys on the Idaho lawsuit say it’s the first such case against an entire state.

ACLU-Idaho Executive Director Leo Morales said the organization would appeal the ruling.

“We disagree with the court that it has no role in deciding the fate of our constitutional right to adequate representation,” Morales said in a prepared statement. “But we agree with the court in one key respect: Idaho’s system of public defense is a failure, one that the governor and the Public Defense Commission have the power - and duty - to fix.”

Hoagland did say that the state’s current public defense system is problematic and disagreed with state attorneys who said Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter and the Idaho Legislature have no responsibility to provide public defense.

“The governor has a duty to ensure the Constitution and laws are enforced in Idaho,” Hoagland wrote. “The governor also has direct supervisory authority over those responsible to establish standards for a constitutionally sound public defense system.”

A spokesman for Otter declined to comment.

Hoagland issued his decision Wednesday, but the parties involved in the case didn’t receive copies of the judgment until Friday.

The ACLU reached settlements in New York and Washington after the U.S. Justice Department intervened on the ACLU’s behalf and state officials agreed to sweeping reforms.

Hoagland primarily took issue with the ACLU naming four plaintiffs - who say they’ve spent months in jail without speaking to their court-appointed attorneys or that their cases weren’t properly reviewed - as proof the entire system needed to be revamped. The lawsuit requested the state judge to order Idaho’s elected officials to implement and fund a better system, but Hoagland said that violated the separation of powers between the branches of government.

Idaho’s public defender system has been at focus recently, since a report from the National Legal Aid and Defender Association found in 2010 that indigent defendants facing criminal trials weren’t getting adequate representation. The problems included a lack of communication between court-appointed lawyers and their clients, poor or nonexistent legal investigations, deficient funding and a lack of oversight.

An interim legislative committee has been working on finalizing legislation to better the public defense system that will be introduced this year no matter the outcome of the lawsuit.

Idaho is one of just three states that don’t provide funding for public defense. Instead, Idaho’s 44 counties are on the hook to provide public defenders. Many choose to contract private attorneys to do the work.

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