Santa Cruz County, California report

FULL REPORT (2.6 MB, PDF file): Sixth Amendment Center, The Right to Counsel in Santa Cruz County, California: Evaluation of Trial Level Indigent Representation Services (September 2020).

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY ONLY (1.1 MB, PDF file): Sixth Amendment Center, The Right to Counsel in Santa Cruz County, California: Evaluation of Trial Level Indigent Representation Services (September 2020).

In 1963, the U.S. Supreme Court held in Gideon v. Wainwright that providing and protecting the Sixth Amendment right to effective assistance of counsel is a constitutional obligation of the states under the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The State of California has delegated to its counties the responsibility for providing effective assistance of counsel to indigent people at the trial court level. Each county board of supervisors, or the individual superior court judges in the county, or the board and judges collectively, determine the method(s) used to provide representation to indigent people at the trial level. Counties are responsible at the outset for funding all trial-level indigent representation services.

In its attempt to fulfill the right to counsel responsibilities delegated to it by the state, Santa Cruz County has chosen to use private attorneys to provide all indigent representation services. For 45 years, the County of Santa Cruz has contracted with the law firm of Biggam, Christensen & Minsloff to provide primary indigent representation services. For conflict representation, the county has contracted for decades with two other law firms: Page, Salisbury & Dudley; and Wallraff & Associates. The existing contracts with all three of these law firms expire on June 30, 2022. Beginning December 1, 2014, the County of Santa Cruz created the Criminal Defense Conflicts Program (CDCP) in the county counsel’s office, administering a panel of private attorneys who are available to be appointed on a case-by-case basis in cases where all three of the contract law firms have a conflict of interest.

Santa Cruz County is considering how best to provide indigent representation services when the existing contracts with the three law firms expire on June 30, 2022. Santa Cruz County does not have an office or person charged with oversight of the entire indigent representation system (both primary and conflict), and the county cannot accurately say how many people or cases, and of what case types, require appointed counsel nor by whom the representation is being provided, if at all. In the absence of this information, it is impossible for the county to determine how much the provision of indigent representation should cost or how to provide it effectively. It is toward that end that the County of Santa Cruz commissioned the Sixth Amendment Center to conduct this evaluation.

6AC’s report explains how Santa Cruz County has delegated all decision-making about the provision of the right to counsel to the private law firms with which it enters into contracts, but without requiring those contract law firms to report information critical to knowing whether they are providing effective assistance of counsel. The county’s contracts with each of the three private law firms require the law firms to provide representation in an unlimited number of cases in exchange for a flat annual fee along with the possibility of additional compensation in “extraordinary circumstances.”

These contracts create conflicts of interest between the financial interests of the law firms, partners, and associates, and the case-related interests of the indigent people whom they are appointed to represent. These financial conflicts have led to the use of “horizontal representation,” where appointed clients are represented by a series of attorneys, rather than a single attorney representing a client from appointment through disposition of the case. Santa Cruz County has not set any limits on the number of cases that an attorney representing indigent clients may handle in a year, and the individual law firms have no internal caseload policies or standards. As a result, the primary contract law firm has caseloads far above the national standards, and the three contract firms combined do not have enough attorneys to handle the total appointed caseload effectively.