Jonathan Boyer spent seven years in a Louisiana jail before he even saw a trial in the case against him. A Louisiana court found that the bulk of this delay was caused by the state’s failure to pay for the lawyer to which Boyer was constitutionally entitled, but it nonetheless concluded that the delay was not the state’s fault. The U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear the case on an important question about whether states can be faulted for dodging their constitutional responsibility to provide legal representation to indigent defendants. But today, the court dodged this question and instead dismissed the case altogether as improperly granted.
As Justice Sonia Sotomayor points out in her four-justice dissent, “It is important for States to understand that they have an obligation to protect a defendant’s constitutional right to a speedy trial.” As a consequence of today’s decision, Louisiana will feel no more compelled to live up to its obligation than it did yesterday, in spite of a documented crisis in the Louisiana criminal justice system. Sotomayor, a former prosecutor, explains:
The Court’s failure to resolve this case is especially regrettable, because it does not seem to be an isolated one. Rather, Boyer’s case appears to be illustrative of larger, systemic problems in Louisiana. The Louisiana Supreme Court has suggested on multiple occasions that the State’s failure to provide funding for indigent defense contributes to extended pretrial detentions. There is also empirical evidence supporting that assessment. In New Orleans Parish, for example, a recent study found that more than 22 percent of pending criminal cases were more than one year old. Another study found that the average time between felony arrest and trial in Calcasieu Parish, the jurisdiction where Boyer was tried, was 501 days in the years before Boyer’s arrest. More broadly, the public defender system seems to be significantly understaffed.
Against this backdrop, the Court’s silence in this case is particularly unfortunate. Conditions of this kind cannot persist without endangering constitutional rights.
Louisiana is not the only state in which paltry funding for criminal defendants undermines both the availability and quality of legal representation. A 2012 Brennan Center for Justice study found that public defenders often spend an average of less than six minutes per arraignment in cases where defendants plead guilty, and the sequester has hit already-overburdened public defenders particularly hard. Nor is Louisiana the only state rife with lengthy pretrial detentions of defendants who have not yet been convicted of any crime. A recent New Jersey study found that 75 percent of the state’s jail inmates are those in pretrial detention who have not yet been convicted of a crime, and that they spend an average of 10 months in jail before trial thanks to state backlogs. Even with extended pretrial detention, judges facing ever-greater caseloads and longtime judicial vacancies lament that they are forced to resort to “assembly-line” fashion sentencing, meaning “you herd everybody into the courtroom and you start sentencing just running down the row.”
In this particular case, Boyer was ultimately convicted of robbing the man who was shot dead after he picked up Boyer while hitchhiking. But not everybody who is held in pretrial detention will ultimately be found guilty, and a decision in this case could have set precedent about the withholding of state funding to lengthen pretrial detention.
While no opinion accompanied the court’s order to dismiss the case as “improvidently granted,” at least three justices who signed onto a concurring opinion apparently dismissed the case because they did not agree with the factual determinations of the Louisiana court. In a concurring opinion, Justice Samuel Alito said the delay was Boyer’s fault, and not the state’s, because he requested several continuances of his trial. Appeals courts typically not disturb the factual findings of a lower court except in the rare circumstances when they were “clearly erroneous.” In this case, even Louisiana had conceded in state court that the lack of funding was the primary cause for delay. On appeal, Louisiana backtracked to again dispute the facts, and Alito, Scalia, and Thomas accepted the state’s argument. This opinion suggests that at least three justices decided to skirt answering an important legal question in order to question an already-decided factual determination.