Origin and Mission
The Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees an accused the right to the assistance of counsel in all federal criminal prosecutions. In 1963 the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed that right in Gideon v. Wainwright and stressed the significance of a financially disadvantaged defendant’s right to an attorney: “[I]n our adversary system of criminal justice, any person haled into court, who is too poor to hire a lawyer, cannot be assured a fair trial unless counsel is provided for him. This seems to us to be an obvious truth.”
In response to Gideon, a study was commissioned by Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy. Congress codified the study’s recommendations in the Criminal Justice Act of 1964 (“CJA” or “Act”), Title 18 U.S.C. § 3006A. As amended, the Act provides the statutory framework for a system of private attorney and institutional defender offices referred to as the Defender Services program. The CJA requires each district to promulgate a plan for the appointment of private attorneys and, if the district chooses, attorneys from a defender office. Each of the nation’s 94 federal judicial districts has a plan to appoint publicly financed lawyers for those who are charged with crimes but unable to afford an attorney. The vast majority of districts have now established a federal defender presence, either a federal public defender or a community defender organization.
Relying solely on a panel of private attorneys from the time the Act was implemented in Montana, in 1991 Chief Judge Paul G. Hatfield decided to bring an institutional defender presence to the district to provide the bulk of appointed counsel services. He directed Magistrate Judge Robert M. Holter to take preliminary steps toward creating a community defender (rather than federal public defender) organization. Community defender organizations are state chartered corporate entities employing salaried defense counsel and support staff, funded by annual grants from the judiciary. A Board of Directors for the Montana Federal Defenders Project, Inc. (the former name of the corporation) was selected, meeting for the first time in Helena on October 21, 1991. In March 1992, the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts (AOUSC), told the Directors to plan to begin operations on September 1, 1992, but only on a month-to-month basis. Because of spending shortfalls during Fiscal Year 1992, if the Board was not willing to take the risk, the result could be lack of program funding for Fiscal Year 1993. In spite of this predicament, the Directors solicited applications for the position of Executive Director by mid-year. Meanwhile, the District Court revised the CJA Plan to establish a community defender office. The amended plan was approved by the Judicial Conference of the Ninth Circuit in June 1992. With circuit approval of the new CJA plan, the Board proceeded with the search for the organization’s chief executive. In September 1992, the first Executive Director was selected from a group of nation-wide applicants. Work immediately began to establish a physical presence and employ staff in each of the District’s five divisions. The organization accepted its first CJA appointment in April 1993.
With the guidance of its Board of Directors, the past and present staff of this Community Defender Organization has demanded that the Government and the Court provide our clients with the fair process guaranteed by the Constitution and federal laws. Trials are far more common for the Federal Defenders of Montana (FDOM) than most federal defender organizations. Sentencing Commission statistics for Montana indicate that trial is the mode of resolution in more than 11% of cases – one of the highest in the nation. Outright acquittals are not unusual, with FDOM attorneys often achieving ‘lesser included’ verdicts in many other cases. Strong sentencing advocacy has led to favorable dispositions. FDOM’s appellate practice resulted in reversals, remands or other positive outcomes for about one sixth of our clients. The Federal Defenders appeal work includes two published cases in the United States Supreme Court: Johnny Lynn Old Chief v. United States, 519 U.S. 172 (1997) and United States v. Juvenile Male, __U.S. __, 131 S. Ct. 2860 (2011).
A comprehensive system to represent defendants financially unable to retain counsel requires a dedicated group of private attorneys to supplement the work of the defender organization. FDOM works alongside the Montana CJA Panel which consists of experienced, highly qualified attorneys who specialize in, or who have a demonstrated competence in, federal criminal defense. One of the purposes of this organization is to provide training to the CJA Panel through periodic events and annual seminars. Panel meetings and frequent consultations offer an opportunity for panel attorney input in the administration and management of the CJA Panel for the district. The organization assures that panel attorneys receive a substantial proportion of eligible cases so they remain well-versed in the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure, the Federal Rules of Evidence, and up-to-date on federal criminal statutes and case law.
As the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers wrote in its 2015 study of the Criminal Justice Act: “Short of warfare, there is no more awesome use of governmental power than the power to prosecute.” The Federal Defenders of Montana exists to meet use of that power – to provide clients with an aggressive and effective defense against attempts to cause loss of reputation, property, liberty, or even life itself.