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Judge considering lawsuit against Utah over your right to a lawyer

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Posted at 6:26 PM, Jul 27, 2016
and last updated 2016-07-27 23:37:00-04

SALT LAKE CITY -- A federal judge is considering whether to toss a lawsuit that accuses the state of Utah of violating people's Sixth Amendment right to a lawyer.

It's an issue that affects tens of thousands of people who go through the court system every year, with lawyers complaining that the public defense system for those too poor to hire their own counsel being put at a severe disadvantage and deprived of rights. Ogden attorney Michael Studebaker argued that the system is broken.

"It is basically a system and we see this more and more, where if you're rich, you're OK. If you're poor or I would even say working class, you're in trouble," he told FOX 13.

At a hearing in federal court on Wednesday, Studebaker argued that people too poor to afford an attorney are given public defenders who are overworked and severely underfunded. He told a federal judge that the state of Utah budgeted $18 million for prosecutors -- but zero dollars for public defenders.

Studebaker is suing on behalf of two men who accuse Washington County of violating their Sixth Amendment rights by not providing adequate counsel. But U.S. District Court Judge Dee Benson pushed back, insisting that people were getting a lawyer.

"You haven't said there's no representation. You just don't like the way it's run now," he said. "You're complaining about the program. You think it should be run better. You can't tell me every person who gets represented by public defender has ineffective assistance of counsel, can you?"

"I have concerns," Studebaker replied.

"Do you have any way to make that allegation? That everyone down there is getting ineffective representation?" the judge asked.

Studebaker argued to keep his lawsuit alive. The Utah Attorney General's Office sought to have it dismissed, arguing people are getting legal counsel. Federal Solicitor Parker Douglas argued that any reforms to the public defender system are best made with the Utah State Legislature, which has already taken steps to fix things.

A series of audits in recent years have blasted Utah's system as inadequate for people. The ACLU of Utah has also filed its own lawsuit against the state over right to counsel. ACLU attorneys were present for Wednesday's arguments, but declined to comment outside of court.

Judge Benson did not indicate when he would issue a ruling on the lawsuit.