Here's the remarkable and disturbing story of a public defender in Ohio who was held in contempt and jailed for five hours because he was unprepared to try a case within one day of being assigned to handle it.
It's bad enough that public defenders have too many clients and not enough resources. Now, in Ohio, they have to fear going to jail if they can't prepare a case for trial within twenty-four hours. What's particularly remarkable about the judge's decision was that the lawyer was put in a position of either going to jail or providing unethical representation.
I am consistently amazed (though no longer surprised) by the routine denial of a criminal defendant's right to a competent attorney and the courts' unwillingness to recognize the problem. When a body of law develops that explains how long lawyers can sleep through a trial before they're considered to be ineffective and lawyers can be jailed for failing to try a case within a day of being assigned to it, there is something seriously wrong with the system.
I am helping out on a death penalty case in Alabama, and at the time of the client's original trial in the 1980s, appointed counsel's fees were limited to $1000. $1000! Not surprisingly, the lawyer put on no defense and decided to make his case at sentencing (for which he did nearly no investigation). The Alabama state courts nevertheless found in a different case that $1000 was enough to ensure effective assistance of counsel. See, e.g., Brown v. State, 807 So.2d 1, 13 (Ala. Crim. App. 1999).
Gideon sure looks great on paper, but the reality of receiving ethical (i.e., competent and diligent) representation is another matter entirely.
Update: Here's a nice story describing reactions to the judge's decision.