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SJC Rules that Public Defenders, Not Judges, Have Independent Authority to Appoint Attorneys to Cases

gavel-2-1236453-300x200The Supreme Judicial Court recently issued a decision in a petition filed under G. L. c.211, §3, ruling that the public defender’s office, not judges, have the independent authority to decide who represents indigdent defendants in court. In the decision – Deputy Chief Counsel for the Public Defender Division of CPCS v. Acting First Justice of The Lowell District Court – the SJC “affirm[ed] CPCS’s independent authority under G. L. c.211D [and S.J.C. Rule 3:10] to select and supervise attorneys for indigent defendants in the pilot program it had launched in the drug court session of the Lowell Division of the District Court Department (drug court).”

The background was as follows. Drug courts have been developed to provide the option of treatment as an alternative sentencing option “in cases where the underlying criminal behavior is thought to be motivated by a defendant’s substance abuse.” The “drug court model … favors a collaborative and nonadversarial approach to supervision of the drug court defendant.” “A judge is the leader of the drug court team,” which includes clinicians and treatment providers. Ordinarily, “[d]efense counsel has no formal role in the drug court sessions because in the post-adjudicative setting, the drug court defendant has no right to counsel. However, if a drug court defendant is issued a probation violation notice, defense counsel is appointed.” “In July, 2015, CPCS initiated a drug court pilot program (pilot), which, in a departure from [the usual] policy, permitted the assignment of counsel to indigent drug court defendants for every stage of the drug court proceedings.” “The impetus for the pilot” was the idea “that a drug court defendant’s likelihood of success in substance abuse treatment would be enhanced if defense counsel gained expertise in addiction issues and was familiar with the team’s view of the defendant’s participation. This pilot innovation permitted assigned counsel to participate in drug court ‘staffings’ [planning sessions] which ordinarily would not involve the presence of appointed counsel.” In September, 2015, “a disagreement between the Justice [of the drug court] and CPCS attorneys surfaced … in an incident involving one of the CPCS attorneys chosen to participate in the pilot…. [T]he upshot was that the Justice” determined “that this attorney would not be permitted to represent probationers in the drug court…. Eventually the Justice announced a categorical ban on CPCS attorneys in the drug court, effectively terminating the drug court pilot…. [The Justice] expressed the belief that CPCS attorneys in the Lowell office were ‘extremely hostile’ to the drug court mission and that they refused to ‘participate fully’ as team members.” In response to the judge’s actions, CPCS filed its c.211, §3, petition, “argu[ing] that under … c.211D and S.J.C. Rule 3:10, … CPCS has independent authority to assign counsel to indigent criminal defendants and that a judge may not remove assigned counsel without notice and the opportunity to be heard, or categorically exclude CPCS attorneys from assignments in the drug court.” The single justice reported the matter to the full SJC.

In its decision, the SJC agreed with CPCS’s argument. The Court stated, “Although we acknowledge and appreciate the important and special role of the drug court in achieving important public policy interests, we are constrained to follow the clear dictates of G.L. c.211D and S.J.C. Rule 3:10, which vest CPCS with sole and independent authority to assign counsel for indigent defendants.” “[A] judge may not override that authority to accommodate a preference for attorneys willing to assume a collaborative and nonadversarial role in drug court proceedings.” “Where a drug court defendant who is indigent is alleged to have violated the terms of probation, the judge must appoint CPCS as counsel. Counsel assigned by CPCS may be removed only for cause after a hearing.”

Defendants with cases in the criminal justice system face many hurdles – from facing adversarial parties on all sides – including judges, to the stigma of the case itself, to potential collateral consequences. If you or a loved one is facing criminal charges, you will need an attorney who understands these challenges and who can creatively and effectively navigate around them. Attorney Daniel Cappetta is such an attorney. Put his expertise to use for you – call him today for a free consultation.