The Supreme Court of Florida Rescues the Public Defender for the Eleventh Circuit.
The Great Recession’s effect on the judiciary in Florida has been profound. While Tallahassee was “tightening the belt” by slashing funding, cutting judicial salaries, and mandating 3% contributions to an already well-funded public employee pension system (see Scott v. Williams, 107 So. 3d 379 (Fla. Jan. 17, 2013)), dockets in both civil and criminal courts grew longer and longer. In civil court, foreclosure filings ballooned as the housing market imploded. And in criminal court, as joblessness increased, so did the number of defendants.
Paralyzed by budget cuts and hiring freezes, the Public Defender’s office for the Eleventh Judicial Circuit (Miami-Dade County) was unable to respond to the increased workload brought by the ever growing number of filings. Fearing that the office’s excessive workload and underfunding had diminished the quality of representation such that it could no longer meet its legal and ethical obligations to criminal defendants, in 2009 the Public Defender filed motions in 21 cases asking to be discharged. The trial court permitted the Public Defender to decline future appointments in third-degree felony cases.
In State v. Public Defender, Eleventh Judicial Circuit, 12 So. 3d 798 (Fla. 3d DCA 2009), the State appealed this trial court order granting prospective withdrawal. The Third District Court of Appeal reversed the trial court and held that in order for the Public Defender to withdraw from an appointed representation based on conflict of interest, an individualized showingmust be made on a case-by-case basis — aggregate relief was not available. Further, the Third DCA held that an excessive caseload alone was not a conflict of interest under § 27.5303 (2007). With section 27.5303(1)(d), the legislature sought to prevent this very scenario by providing that:
In no case shall the court approve a withdrawal by the public defender or criminal conflict and civil regional counsel based solely upon inadequacy of funding or excess workload of the public defender or regional counsel.
Then in 2010, an Assistant Public Defender sought to withdraw from representing a single defendant based on an excessive caseload, and he challenged section 27.5303(1)(d) as unconstitutional. The trial court granted the APD’s motion to withdraw, but denied the constitutional