University of Southern California

Revisiting the T.J. Hooper: Stating What is Constitutionally Required of Defense Attorneys Under the Strickland Evaluation of Attorney Performance

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Note by Lauren McGrory Johnson
From Volume 87, Number 3 (March, 2014)

The story has become all too familiar. Facing felony charges, an indigent defendant is appointed a public defender to represent him. Working under a crushing caseload of 500 felonies per year, the public defender has around an hour to dispose of the case. He meets with the defendant once, quickly advises him to accept the plea deal offered by the prosecutor, and moves on to the next defendant. No investigation; no interviewing potential witnesses—just take the plea.

The case described above was appealed to the Washington State Supreme Court in 2010, and involved the prosecution of a boy who was a mere twelve-years old. The boy’s case, combined with pressure from state defense organizations and local media, convinced the state supreme court to take action in 2012 and enact mandatory performance standards, including strict caseload limits, that all defense attorneys in Washington must comply with beginning September 2013. The standards were adopted after a long struggle with underfunding and overwhelming caseloads among Washington public defender offices, a problem not unique to that state.

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