Settlement in Lexington County SC Promises to Improve Access to Public Defense Services
On March 9, 2023, the Honorable Sherri A. Lydon of the U.S. District Court for the District of South Carolina granted final approval of a class action settlement agreement with Lexington County, South Carolina, that will more than triple the annual funding for the County’s public defense services within the Lexington County Magistrate Courts (LCMC), dramatically increasing representation in those courts.
When Plaintiffs filed this lawsuit in 2017, the County provided funding for only one public defender to represent thousands of indigent individuals facing the threat of incarceration in the LCMC. At the time the parties reached a settlement more than five years later, Lexington County was providing funding for two additional public defenders in the LCMC, but the amount of funding was so low that all three positions sat empty.
After reviewing Plaintiffs’ briefing and the overwhelming record of “undisputed evidence” put forth on summary judgment, the District Court concluded in August 2022 that “Lexington County has engaged in policies, procedures, and customs that cause systemic deficiencies in funding, staffing, and assignment of cases to public defenders with the result that indigent people in the LCMC are deprived of court-appointed counsel.” The Court further found that such underfunding “[points] to a ‘tragic picture of the pattern and practice of systemic denials of constitutional rights in the LCMC.’”
Plaintiffs’ groundbreaking settlement with the County will provide funding for six full-time attorneys dedicated solely to the LCMC, including one supervisor, at salary levels that will help ensure those positions are filled. The settlement also creates funding for four supporting staff positions dedicated to indigent defense in the LCMC: one paralegal, one administrative assistant, one investigator, and one social worker. This annual funding for indigent defense services in the LCMC—which Plaintiffs estimate will increase by more than a half-million dollars, from approximately $231,000 to $784,000––is guaranteed every year in perpetuity. Lexington County has also agreed to non-monetary relief, including the provision of sufficient space for public defenders to meet with their clients and to coordinate court schedules to maximize the availability of public defenders to LCMC defendants.
Terrell Marshall Law Group Members Toby Marshall and Eric Nusser have been working with the American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of South Carolina since 2016 to prosecute this case and vindicate Plaintiffs’ and Class members’ constitutional rights. Mr. Marshall, Mr. Nusser, and the entire TMLG team are proud to have obtained this relief to improve access to public defense services for the thousands of people who appear every year in Lexington County Magistrate Courts for years to come.
Read the final approval order here.