Nevada Indigent Defense Commission report paints grim picture of indigent defense services in rural counties
3/22/2013 11:15:00 AM
While the nation has been celebrating the 50th anniversary of Gideon v. Wainwright – the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision that guarantees indigent defendants the right to competent legal counsel – a new study indicates the milestone is not cause for celebration in rural Nevada.
The study entitled Reclaiming Justice,
commissioned by the Nevada Supreme Court’s Indigent Defense Commission,
concludes that there are serious deficiencies in the ability of rural
Nevada counties to meet the Sixth Amendment requirements of the Gideon
decision. The report was released at the Commission’s meeting today
In rural Nevada, indigent defendants may sit in jail for several
weeks or even months waiting to speak to an attorney while witnesses’
memories fade and investigative leads go cold, the report noted.
Nevada Supreme Court Justice Michael Cherry is calling for a
state-funded public defense commission to oversee and administer all
right-to-counsel services outside Clark and Washoe counties. The
state’s two most populous counties were not the focus of the study
because they have public defender offices and sufficient numbers of
attorneys for court appointment.
“Nevada’s rural counties simply cannot shoulder the state’s
obligations under the Sixth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution any
longer,” Justice Cherry said. “The financial burden will only increase
as the U.S. Supreme Court continually clarifies and expands the
obligations an attorney owes the indigent accused.”
“We need to fix this problem now,” said Justice Cherry, who chairs the Supreme Court’s Indigent Defense Commission.
The study will be presented by the Commission to the Nevada Supreme
Court, which will consider its findings and recommendations in a public
hearing. Interested parties will have the opportunity at the hearing to
comment on the study and provide other input.
According to the Nevada Association of Counties, rural counties are
stretched to the financial breaking point as they work to provide
competent legal representation for indigent defendants. The situation
is only going to worsen as a growing number of people qualify for public
defense lawyers as a result of the current economic climate.
The limited number of attorneys practicing in rural areas only complicates the indigent defense dilemma.
Even when an attorney is appointed in a rural county, a defendant
“may be one of several hundred vying for the time and attention of the
lawyer,” the report stated.
In 2008, the Indigent Defense Commission’s Rural Subcommittee
concluded that “rural counties are in crisis in terms of indigent
defense,” noting that one county in particular has an annual public
defense attorney caseload of “almost 2,000 per contract lawyer.”
“Not even the most competent lawyer on earth can effectively open,
investigate, and dispose of cases at a rate of nearly five and a half
cases per day, every single day of the year, weekends and holidays
included,” the report stated.
Justice Cherry said “Judicial, Legislative, and Executive action is
needed to restore Nevada’s historic and deep-rooted commitment to equal
justice to the poor.”
The report points out that “since 2008, numerous Nevada Supreme Court
administrative orders have improved the right to counsel in the state’s
urban centers. This is most notable in Clark County (Las Vegas), where
public defender caseloads are now reasonable … and attorney contracts
do not impose financial incentives for attorneys to do as little work as
possible on a case.”
“But fixing the ‘crisis’ in rural Nevada has proven to be more
difficult,” the report continued. “There are a wide variety of reasons
for this, including a lack of attorneys to do the work, the geographic
expanse of most rural counties, and limited infrastructure to train and
“Perhaps most importantly, though, most rural Nevada counties have
insufficient resources to keep pace with the United States Supreme Court
as it continually clarifies and expands the responsibilities that
attorneys owe to their clients under the Sixth Amendment,” the report
The study points out that Nevada has had a “longstanding history of ensuring equal justice to people of insufficient means.”
In 1879, Nevada became the first state in the nation to authorize the
appointment of attorneys in all criminal matters, including
misdemeanors, and also provide payment for the attorneys’ services, the
But even before the 1879 law – and well before any federal action on
the issue – Nevada had a strong commitment to legal representation.
The Gideon decision is named for Clarence Earl Gideon, who challenged
a Florida court’s decision to deny him an attorney. The case
eventually made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which, in March of
1963, handed down its landmark decision that requires all states to
provide competent representation to poor people facing felony charges
and the potential loss of liberty.
Nevada had its own Gideon in 1873 – Shepherd L. Wixom – who was
accused of stagecoach robberies in Lander County and fought for the
right to have an attorney to advocate on his behalf. Wixom’s court
challenges did not result in his freedom (as Gideon’s did), but it did
lead to the 1877 decision by the Nevada Supreme Court to strengthen the
state’s law supporting a right to counsel.
The Sixth Amendment Center was commissioned to research and write the
Reclaiming Justice report. The Sixth Amendment Center is a non-profit
research organization dedicated to ensuring fairness to poor people in
the justice system, according to David Carroll, executive director of
the Boston, Massachusetts, based firm.
“Reclaiming Justice shows that the people of Nevada have
always viewed the right to counsel not as a federal mandate to be
resisted, but as a bedrock principle upon which the state was founded,”
“Nevadans should embrace this history and this view today,” Carroll continued. “We hope the recommendations set out in Reclaiming Justice
contribute to the restoration of Nevada’s deep-rooted commitment to due
process and that justice in rural Nevada will – once again – no longer
depend on the amount of money one has in his pocket.”
To read the full report CLICK HERE.