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Utah: Lawsuit over public defense system should be dismissed

SHARE Utah: Lawsuit over public defense system should be dismissed
FILE - Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes talks with attendees during the Utah State Republican Convention at the Salt Palace in Salt Lake City Saturday, April 23, 2016. A lawsuit alleging that Utah's public defender system is unconstitutional should bedism

FILE - Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes talks with attendees during the Utah State Republican Convention at the Salt Palace in Salt Lake City Saturday, April 23, 2016. A lawsuit alleging that Utah’s public defender system is unconstitutional should bedismissed because the six inmates suing over an inadequate defense haven’t been convicted or sentenced, according to the state attorney general’s office.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — A lawsuit alleging that Utah's public defender system is unconstitutional should be dismissed because the six inmates suing over an inadequate defense haven't been convicted or sentenced, according to the state attorney general's office.

Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes's office filed court documents Friday asking a judge to dismiss the lawsuit.

If the inmates haven't been convicted or sentenced yet, they can't claim their legal representation was ineffective, the attorney general's office said.

Reye's office is responding to a lawsuit filed by American Civil Liberties Union in June on behalf of the six inmates.

The ACLU contends that Utah's public defender system is underfunded and overworked, leaving low-income people who are accused of crimes without their full right to a defense in court.

The attorney general's office said it shouldn't be the target of the lawsuit because it doesn't have the power to change the system — that's something state lawmakers and the counties would control.

A judge has not yet ruled on the request to dismiss the lawsuit.

The six inmates face charges such as theft and drug crimes. They are behind bars in in Cache, Tooele and Carbon counties and have had little interaction with their assigned public defenders, according to the ACLU.

John Mejia, the legal director of the ACLU of Utah, said Monday that the organization stands by its arguments and opposes any effort to dismiss the case.

Utah and Pennsylvania are the only states where local governments — not the state — fund all indigent defenseservices, without statewide oversight or money.

That leaves rural and poor counties struggling to pay for attorneys for people who can't afford them, according to the ACLU.

The lawsuit follows a report last year from the Boston-based Sixth Amendment Center that found most low-income people charged with misdemeanors in Utah never see a lawyer. For those accused of more serious felony crimes, the report found those defendants are getting lawyers, but public defenders don't have enough time to dedicate to each case.

In response, the Legislature this year set aside $2 million to create a state commission to study indigentdefense systems and hand out grants to local governments. State officials say the ACLU should have given that commission more time to get up and running before filing a lawsuit.

The attorney general's office has also asked a judge to merge the ACLU lawsuit with a similar case out of southern Utah that was filed by two Washington County men who argue they haven't received a proper defenseagainst charges they face.

A federal judge has not yet ruled on whether to combine the two cases.