This article was first published in the Liberty Reporter: 2016 Fall Newsletter >>

On June 21, 2016, the ACLU of Utah and co-counsel Holland & Hart, LLP, filed a class action lawsuit against the state of Utah for failing to meet its Sixth Amendment obligations under the U.S. Constitution. 

The lawsuit, Remick v. Utah, filed in Utah’s Third Judicial District Court, is brought by six individual plaintiffs, who seek to represent a class of individuals seeking declaratory relief. The named plaintiffs – who are facing charges in Tooele County, Carbon County and Cache County – were discovered through jail visits and courtroom observations throughout the state. Their experience with difficulties accessing counsel is representative of problems faced by indigent defendants statewide. 

The ACLU of Utah has been engaged in advocacy related to Utah’s failing indigent defense system since before 2011, when the organization released “Failing Gideon,” a report that illustrated the many ways in which Utah is failing to fulfill the Sixth Amendment’s guarantee of access to legal counsel. A report released in 2015 by the Sixth Amendment Center, a non-partisan research organization, confirmed the dismal findings in “Failing Gideon.”

By some estimates, 80% of those facing criminal charges in Utah are unable to afford an attorney while also providing for their everyday living expenses. Under the Sixth Amendment, Utah has an obligation to ensure effective legal counsel to those individuals. Instead, the state has absconded its responsibility to the counties, currently providing no funds or assistance of any kind. 

In 2015 the ACLU of Utah launched our “YES ON SIX” campaign to demand legislative action in 2016, with the goal of substantial state funding and oversight of county-led indigent defense systems. 

The state has known about these persistent and egregious issues with its public defense system for years. And yet, the state has continued to abdicate its responsibilities in this area, offering neither funding nor oversight to assist counties and municipalities in the provision of defense to those who cannot afford a private attorney. The legislation passed during the 2016 legislative session that created an Indigent Defense Commission is too little, too late.

Photo: Former Executive Director Karen McCreary explains the indigent defense lawsuit to the press on June 21, 2016.