Faced with what they call severe budget shortfalls, several public defender offices across the country say they may soon begin turning away thousands of poor criminal defendants.
Statewide public defenders in Kentucky and Minnesota and local offices in cities such as Atlanta and Miami say budget cuts are forcing them to fire or furlough trial lawyers, leaving the offices unable to handle misdemeanor and, in some instances, serious felony cases.
The cuts leave states scrambling to find a solution to a constitutional dilemma: The Sixth Amendment requires the government to either provide poor defendants with lawyers or release them.
"It is an impending legal crisis in our state," Joseph Lambert, the chief justice of the Kentucky Supreme Court, told ABC News.
The conflicts have prompted at least one lawsuit, brought on Wednesday by several criminal suspects in Atlanta who may temporarily be without lawyers, and could result in some public defenders being held in contempt of court.
"Without adequate defense counsel, the public simply cannot be confident that persons are not being wrongfully convicted of crimes," Lambert said.
Participants expect the states to reach a temporary solution and do not expect criminal defendants to be freed because they do not have lawyers.
The cuts to defenders' offices come as the economic downturn has trickled down to the state level across the country, forcing local governments to look for every chance to trim their budgets, including cutting the criminal justice system.
"The criminal justice system is under extraordinary strain because of the budget cuts which have become necessary," said Buddy Jacobs, the general counsel of the Florida Prosecuting Attorney's Association.
Public defenders in Minnesota, Kentucky, Florida and Georgia say they will not be able to handle all their cases beginning next month. Miami-Dade County Public Defender Bennett Brummer said his office would reject all but the most serious felony cases and several other public defender offices in the state have also said they will begin rejecting cases.
Brummer said a state agency will provide lawyers, after which judges will appoint private lawyers to take the cases.
But the refusals have raised the prospect that judges could hold local defenders in contempt for refusing to take cases. A 2006 opinion from the American Bar Association says lawyers representing indigent defendants should withdraw if their caseloads prevent them from providing "competent and diligent" representation.
Prosecutors and others say that opinion appears to conflict with state law, which says that judges may not allow a public defender to withdraw from a case based only on inadequate funding or excess workload. Brummer claims he is not withdrawing from cases, but merely refusing to take new cases.
"On the prosecution side, we are in even more dire straits," Florida's Jacobs said. "But we can't refuse to take cases. Our job is to seek justice. And we're doing the best we can."
Florida Republican State Sen. Victor Crist, chair of the Justice appropriations committee, said the justice system had been cut less than other areas of government and said the public defenders were trying to circumvent the legislature and force the budget issue into the courts.