A lawsuit alleging Idaho severely underfunds its public defense system can now continue as a class action. That means tens of thousands of people could be eligible, with significant changes to Idaho's justice system possible if they win.
University of Idaho Law School professor Richard Seamon says the ruling this week by a district court judge has huge implications for the case.
“Proceeding as a class action turns a kind of home movie into a Hollywood production. In many ways, it really super sizes the lawsuit,” Seamon says.
The ACLU of Idaho says up to 50,000 people could be folded into the suit.
At the heart of the case is whether or not Idaho is meeting its constitutional duty to provide adequate defense lawyers for those who can’t afford them.
Those behind the lawsuit say public defenders are overburdened with cases without enough resources to properly handle them.
A 2010 study by the National Legal Aid and Defender Association found “extraordinarily high attorney caseloads and workloads” and a “lack of consistent, effective and confidential” communication with their indigent clients.
This ruling to convert the case into a class action, Seamon says, gives those suing the state much more leverage to force a settlement than they had before.
“And by the same token I think it does indeed put pressure on the state, the defendants, to try to think about a way to deal with this short of litigating to a final judgment,” he says.
The attorney general’s office declined to comment for this story or answer whether or not they’d appeal the ruling.
Should the state lose, Seamon says it’s likely lawmakers will have to break out their checkbooks.
“Underfunding has been the primary cause of the problems, whether they arise to constitutional problems or not, and so the relief is bound to cost the state and including its taxpayers a lot more money.”
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