ACLU knocks South Carolina public defender in debtors’ prison case

Screen shot of Google Street View image of Lexington, SC Court House

The American Civil Liberties Union’s most recent litigation to help end debtors’ prisons includes, at first glance anyway, an unusual if not downright surprising defendant — the public defender.
After all, it’s oft considered a thankless, overworked, underpaid, under-resourced job that rarely gets the accolades and, perhaps, the pay of prosecutorial counterparts.
However, ACLU attorneys and their legal allies see things differently in Lexington, South Carolina.
There, the ACLU is arguing Robert Madsen, the Circuit Public Defender for South Carolina’s 11th Judicial Circuit, deserves to be a defendant right alongside court officials and the county sheriff in the ACLU’s recent debtors’ prison lawsuit.
First, some background: on June 1, 2017, in what it deemed “the latest pushback against modern-day debtors’ prisons,” the ACLU, its South Carolina chapter and the Terrell Marshall Law Group announced a federal complaint in South Carolina “challenging the illegal arrest and incarceration of poor people in Lexington County.”
Summing up the case, the ACLU put things bluntly in a July motion to seek class action status:
“Lexington County, South Carolina, is home to a modern-day debtors’ prison,” attorneys wrote. “Each year, hundreds of indigent people, if not more than a thousand, are arrested and incarcerated simply because they lack the means to pay fines and fees for traffic citations and other low-level offenses imposed by Lexington County magistrate courts.
“Once arrested, these people never see a judge, never have a hearing, and never receive the advice of counsel. Rather, they are taken to the Lexington County Detention Center (“Detention Center”) and forced to spend weeks or even months in jail.”
Along with court officials and the county sheriff, the ACLU team also singled out the public defender, Madsen, arguing he failed to provide the resources needed for Lexington County’s magistrate courts.
The ACLU argues it’s Madsen’s job to submit annual requests for funding the defender’s office to county officials, and to meet with the county officials to justify budget requests. They allege he and the county made “a deliberate decision” to inadequately fund public defender services for indigent people facing jail in magistrate court cases.
For any public defender, of course, that’s a serious charge. To bolster their case, the ACLU attorneys delved into budget figures, reporting that while Lexington County with a population of 273,843 allocated $514,306 for public defender services, comparable sized York and Spartanburg counties each provided more than twice as much money by comparison.
DebtorsPrison.com hasn’t examined county budget documents, sought meeting minutes or reviewed any hearings in Lexington, but it would be interesting to get some more context about the county’s overall budget situation and historical figures for the prosecutor and defender offices alike.
Still, the funding for public defender services, the ACLU says, means indigent people aren’t getting the legal representation they deserve even when facing jail time for failure to pay fines and fees.
In an email to debtorsprisons.com, which sought comment from Madsen, the public defender replied, “Since it is in litigation I do not think it would be wise for me to comment, but I appreciate the offer.”
In court papers, however, an attorney for the public defender noted that in Lexington, a public defender is available for any case for which an appointment is made.
And, among a host of other defenses, Madsen’s attorney also argued his client ought to be entitled to immunity.
“This Defendant at no time violated any clearly established statutory or constitutional rights which were known or should have been known to him and therefore is entitled to qualified immunity from suit.”
However the case shakes out, the decision to name a public defender as a defendant is noteworthy and holds broader implications far outside of Lexington. Come budget time, defenders across the country ought to keep the case in mind as they contemplate just how aggressive to be in advocating for their budget and arguing against cuts.

About Jim McElhatton 13 Articles
Jim McElhatton is a freelance reporter and private investigator. A former longtime daily newspaper investigative journalist, he has covered criminal justice issues working at newspapers in Washington, DC, Texas and New Jersey. This is site is an unaffiliated, independent news source for issues related to indigent incarceration and debtors' prisons in the United States.

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