More than four years before the American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit accusing Lexington County, South Carolina officials of running “modern day debtors’ prison,” one of the defendants issued a clear message to elected leaders: people were facing jail time without getting constitutionally mandated access to legal representation.
“Quite honestly, I would wish we didn’t have be in magistrate’s court,” Lexington’s public defender, Robert Madsen, told the county’s elected board in a 2013 hearing, adding his office had a “full plate” already.
“But it is something that is now constitutionally mandated. We are not providing that service, and we certainly need to be.”
Madsen went on to explain under a Supreme Court decision that it’s a constitutional mandate for people with a “liberty interest” who cannot afford an attorney to receive representation.
But for indigent residents facing jail time in lower magistrate court cases — the prospect of jail time being the “liberty interest” — the public defenders in Lexington were not providing representation, he said. What’s more, Madsen told elected officials as far back as 2013 that the ACLU was keenly interested in the issue and even had sued another South Carolina county.
Now, four years later, it’s Madsen who has found himself among the defendants in the ACLU’s debtors’ prison case against Lexington County. The class action complaint accuses judges, the sheriff and Madsen of overseeing a system to keep people jailed who cannot afford to pay court fines for traffic offenses and other minor offenses, even if the defendants have no legal help.
In other debtors’ prison lawsuits, it’s not unusual to see judges and court clerks sued individually. But the ACLU included the public defender in Lexington, arguing Madsen made a “deliberate decision” to inadequately fund public defender services and affected the rights of indigent people facing jail for failure to pay steep court fines
The ACLU attorneys also said while it was Madsen’s job to file budget requests to fund his office, Lexington lagged far behind comparable sized counties when it came to doling out funds for public defender services. Madsen declined to comment when reached by debtorsprisons.com by email, saying the case was in active litigation.
But a review of county records shows the public defender wasn’t entirely silent on funding issues, according an archived video hearing of a budget session posted on the county’s website.
Back then, Madsen said on a per capita level, the county ranked 37th out of 46 in the state for public defender budgets. Madsen’s remarks came as part of his request for two additional attorneys. One would work in family court and the other in magistrate court.
Asked by one of the elected officials which position was more important, Madsen did not hesitate: the magistrate court attorney.
“It’s constitutionally mandated,” he said.