Strange Bedfellows: Can Insurers Play a Role in Advancing Gideon's Promise?

27 Pages Posted: 3 Apr 2018 Last revised: 17 Apr 2018

See all articles by Jacqueline McMurtrie

Jacqueline McMurtrie

University of Washington - School of Law

Date Written: December 1, 2016


Over fifty years ago, Gideon v. Wainwright resoundingly embraced the principle that public defenders are "necessities, not luxuries" and as such, are required to protect the accused person's fundamental right to a fair trial. Yet, there is a universal consensus that Gideon's promise is unfulfilled; the rich and poor do not have equal standing in our criminal justice system. Attempts to reform public defense through the individualized approaches of litigation, legislation, court rules or community advocacy has led to limited and often short-term success.

The article examines how nontraditional alliances and multiform advocacy brought about reform in Washington State's public defense system. Caseload limits are now routinely written into public defense contracts as a result of a combination of decades of effort by public defense advocacy organizations, the legislature, the courts, the state bar association, and (perhaps reluctantly) insurers. The article examines how the Washington Cities Insurance Association worked with its members to improve the provision of public defense services after a federal court held public defense systems -- where attorneys handled as many as 1000 cases a year -- deprived the poor of their right to counsel under Gideon. The court ordered the cities to undertake remedial measures and awarded over $2.5 million in attorneys fees and expenses. The article concludes by encouraging public defenders to follow the lead of other social justice organizations by engaging in multi-forum advocacy, as well as joining forces with less traditional partners.

Keywords: criminal law, ethics, indigent defense, law reform

Suggested Citation

McMurtrie, Jacqueline, Strange Bedfellows: Can Insurers Play a Role in Advancing Gideon's Promise? (December 1, 2016). Hofstra Law Review, Vol. 45, No. 2, 2016. Available at SSRN:

Jacqueline McMurtrie (Contact Author)

University of Washington - School of Law ( email )

William H. Gates Hall
Box 353020
Seattle, WA 98105-3020
United States


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