Suit Over Legal Aid Advances in New York
Resource type: News
The New York Times | [ View Original Source (opens in new window) ]
By William Glaberson. New York’s highest court ruled Thursday that a broad class-action suit challenging the state’s system of providing public defenders can move forward because there are enough signs that the system is failing poor people.
The 4-to-3 ruling by the State Court of Appeals came in a closely watched suit that civil liberties lawyers said could be a model for similar challenges across the country. It also set the stage for a sweeping battle in the courts and perhaps the Legislature.
Written by the state’s chief judge, Jonathan Lippman, the ruling said the suit, which had been bitterly opposed by the state, could proceed because it posed fundamental questions about the fairness of the criminal justice system.
“Wrongful conviction, the ultimate sign of a criminal justice system’s breakdown and failure, has been documented in too many cases,” the decision said.
The ruling was something of a milestone after decades of reports and findings by state commissions that New York’s locally financed system for meeting the constitutional requirement to provide lawyers for indigent defendants, which varies greatly by county, is inadequate, with inattentive, unavailable, poorly trained and poorly supervised lawyers handling huge caseloads. In many counties, the ruling noted, poor defendants are routinely arraigned without lawyers at all during initial appearances, where bail is set and many defendants are sent to jail.
The way is now cleared for a trial or a settlement by New York, as has been the result in several other states that have faced such challenges. There have been similar class-action challenges over public defense systems in states like Connecticut, Indiana, Minnesota and Montana that have ended with inconsistent decisions and settlements. Last month, the Michigan Supreme Court permitted a similar challenge to proceed.
By some estimates, the improvements sought by the civil liberties lawyers could cost the state hundreds of millions of dollars.
“Nearly 50 years after the Supreme Court held that criminal defendants have a right to meaningful counsel, the state’s highest court has held that New York may well be violating that right every day,” said Daniel Greenberg, a lawyer at Schulte Roth & Zabel, which filed the suit with the New York Civil Liberties Union. Mr. Greenberg was referring to the landmark 1963 Supreme Court ruling, Gideon v. Wainwright, that declared poor people facing criminal charges have the right to a lawyer.
Gov. David A. Paterson’s office released a statement saying it was reviewing the decision. But the statement also noted that at an event with Judge Lippman on Monday, Mr. Paterson spoke publicly about working with him to improve public defender services in the state.
“We both agree that the current system is a disgrace,” the governor said at the event.
The suit was filed in the name of a Rochester woman, Kimberly Hurell-Harring, and 19 other people who were facing criminal charges in five counties: Onondaga, Ontario, Schuyler, Suffolk and Washington.
Ms. Hurell-Harring claimed that a public defender in Washington County, near the Vermont border, did little for her but pressure her to plead guilty after a felony arrest for trying to sneak marijuana to her husband, who was in prison.
The state fought the case, claiming it would be a judicial invasion of the authority of the Legislature and the governor. The three-judge dissent written by Judge Eugene F. Pigott Jr. echoed that argument. It acknowledged that “there is no doubt that there are inadequacies in the delivery of indigent legal services” but said that such a complaint should be addressed to the Legislature.
The majority decision said “there is a considerable risk that indigent defendants are, with a fair degree of regularity, being denied constitutionally mandated counsel” in the five counties, in every part of the state, named in the suit.
The state’s defender system consists of Legal Aid societies, private lawyers who are appointed by the courts and local public defender offices. With more than 80 percent of defendants facing criminal charges unable to afford to pay for lawyers, public defender systems have come to define most criminal justice systems in the United States.
Generally in the criminal justice system, defendants who claim they were not adequately represented must wait to make that argument in an appeal after a conviction. But the civil liberties lawyers in New York argued that a broad review was necessary in a class-action case because case-by-case appeals did not address systemic failings.
Law enforcement officials were divided over the class-action suit. Some prosecutors said the case overstated the problems with public defender programs, while others said poorly financed defender programs undermined the credibility of the entire criminal justice system.
Mr. Paterson has proposed legislation that would create an Office of Indigent Defense to evaluate the current system. The bill would also provide a modest $7 million increase in state subsidies.
Last year, the Legislature passed a law intended to limit defenders’ caseloads inside New York City, where on average Legal Aid lawyers each handle more than 700 cases a year.
The 4-to-3 decision on Thursday was the latest in a series of liberal rulings by the state’s top court under Judge Lippman, who was appointed last year and has taken the court in a new direction with rulings that have been notably sympathetic to environmental, civil liberties and criminal defense arguments.
As in many other rulings from the Lippman court, which has a majority of judges appointed by a Republican, former Gov. George E. Pataki, the judges voted along party lines but with one defection joining with the three judges appointed by Democratic governors to form a majority. In this case, the Patiki appointee who formed the majority was Judge Victoria A. Graffeo.
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