High Court Weighs Public Defender Caseload, Ability to Withdraw Criminal Pleas

Jun 7, 2012

Should public defenders be able to excuse themselves from future cases if their current case load is too high? And should criminal defendants have the right to change their pleas within a month of the original plea? These were the questions the Florida Supreme Court considered in Thursday’s oral arguments.

The first case before Florida’s Supreme Court on Thursday, involved a public defender’s office claiming to be overworked. In the original case, the 11th Circuit Public Defender, in Miami, argued he should be excused from taking on additional, non-death-penalty cases. A trial judge had granted his request temporarily, but a lower appeals court then overturned that order. Arguing for the public defender’s office, Parker Thompson said, in the original case, one assistant PD testified he had more than 600 clients in a year. The man said, in many of his cases he had no time to brief his clients before entering their pleas.

But, arguing for the state, Louis Hubener said, the real issue might be how the public defender manages his budget—he could lower salaries in order to hire more staff, for example.

 “There may be appropriate circumstances in which the court would be justified in looking at office management," he said.

Next, the court considered changes to Florida’s criminal procedure rules, including one proposed change that would take away a defendant’s ability to change his plea within 30 days of his initial plea. 

Arguing for the change, trial judge Donald Scaglione said such requests only slow down the judicial process. In his courtroom, he said, 98 percent of the time, he dismisses convicted criminals’ requests to change their plea. “Usually it’s buyer’s remorse," he said. "They go to the jail and they listen to the other inmates, who always have more knowledge than their trained, licensed attorneys.”

But Glen Gifford of the  Public Defender’s Office in Tallahassee argued that the 2 percent of defendants who are granted the chance at a trial should not be denied that chance. The Florida Supreme Court is considering these issues with no deadline for a decision.