Best v. Grant County
Ensures that their public defense systems provide fair and effective representation to indigent defendants.
Criminal Justice Reform – IMPACT LITIGATION
The Best, et al. v. Grant County lawsuit was filed in April 2004 by Columbia Legal Services and the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington (ACLU-WA). Plaintiffs Jeffrey Best, Daniel Campos and Gary Dale Hutt were charged with felony offenses in Grant County and alleged that Grant County’s public defense system failed to provide indigent felony defendants with effective assistance of counsel. The lawsuit also included a taxpayer plaintiff, Greg Hansen, who wanted Grant County to provide constitutionally adequate defense to indigent persons and use public funds wisely. The court granted the plaintiffs class action status in August 2004. The lawsuit also argued that Grant County’s public defenders:
- Failed to communicate with clients
- Did not interview potential witnesses
- Failed to use investigators or experts
- Failed to properly advise clients before entering guilty pleas
- Did not file critical legal motions
The settlement came after Kittitas County Superior Court Judge Michael E. Cooper ruled in October 2005 that Grant County’s system overworked its lawyers, failed to provide effective supervision, and allowed the Grant County Prosecutor’s Office to interfere with funding for expert witnesses and investigators. In his ruling, Judge Cooper found it was “virtually uncontested” that the Grant County public defense system in place before April 2004 “suffered from systemic deficiencies, ” such as public defenders with grossly excessive caseloads or little meaningful supervision. Judge Cooper noted that although some improvements were made in the 2005 public defense contract, serious problems persisted: “… it still creates a well-grounded fear of immediate invasion of the right to effective assistance of counsel.”
To settle the Best case, Grant County officials agreed to overhaul the county’s system for providing legal defense to people charged with felonies that could not afford to pay for an attorney, and agreed to comply with legal standards endorsed by the Washington State Bar Association and authorized by the Washington Legislature. The Best settlement resulted in the reduction of excessive caseloads for public defenders, guaranteed that public defense lawyers would be qualified to handle serious felony cases, and provided adequate funding for defense investigators and expert witnesses. The parties selected and worked with a monitor to ensure Grant County complied during the six-year term of the settlement agreement. Best v. Grant County was Washington’s first case where a county public defense system was subject to comprehensive court monitoring, and the court ruling sent a strong message to all counties statewide that they must ensure that their public defense systems provide fair and effective representation to indigent defendants.