The ACLU of Nevada, which sued the state in 2017 for failing to provide public defense for people who couldn’t afford a lawyer in rural counties, announced Thursday it had reached a settlement that ensures people who have been charged with crimes that could be punished with imprisonment receive counsel.
“We have talked about this issue for a long time in Nevada, so this is a huge step forward,” said Sherrie Royster, the legal director for the ACLU of Nevada. “Lower income Nevadans have the right to receive equal treatment from the criminal justice system whether they are in an urban or a rural area, and this settlement is a sign that Nevada is finally taking that responsibility seriously.”
Davis v. Nevada, which was filed in the First Judicial District Court in Carson City nearly three years ago, was a first step to begin addressing decades-long disparities in access to counsel.
The ACLU along with private attorneys from O’Melveny & Myers, which joined in the lawsuit, argued the lack of legal representation was a violation of people’s Sixth Amendment right, which guarantees the right to trial by jury and the right to counsel, as well as the Nevada Constitution.
“I’ve seen how important the public defense system is with my own eyes, and I’ve seen how bad it is when that system doesn’t work,” said Diane Davis, one of the lead plaintiffs, in a statement Tuesday. “I hope this settlement means other people will have better experiences with public defenders.”
Following public pressure in recent years, Nevada lawmakers passed legislation in 2019 that created a Department of Indigent Defense Services to begin tackling the disparities faced by indigent defendants.
But the ACLU said the legislation was only a start and was insufficient in remedying the issue.
The ACLU said the settlement also requires for a minimum of three years that a court-appointed monitor ensures Nevada complies with the judgement.
“For too long and for too many people the right to counsel in Nevada has been an empty promise,” said Maggie Carter, an attorney at O’Melveny & Myers. “This settlement will ensure that this indispensable constitutional right is available to all Nevadans. It should also serve as a wake-up call for other states that are failing criminal defendants who cannot afford an attorney.”