Key New York Suit Calls Public Defender Programs Inadequate
A class-action suit to be argued next week in New York’s highest court has become a test of a national strategy by civil liberties groups to challenge what they say are failed public defender programs in many states.
Next Tuesday, the Court of Appeals is to consider whether the suit can proceed. A half-dozen friend-of-the-court briefs portray the scheduled argument as a critical step in defining the meaning of a landmark decision of the United States Supreme Court in 1963. The decision, Gideon v. Wainwright, declared that the Constitution required states to provide lawyers for indigent defendants.
The New York class-action 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. The question before the Court of Appeals is whether the class action presents an issue that the courts can consider.
The civil liberties case has placed New York officials in the awkward position of defending a $400 million locally financed system that a 2006 commission said did not provide effective representation to “a large portion of those entitled to it.”
Law enforcement officials are divided over the case, with arguments on each side filed by groups of former and current New York prosecutors. Some prosecutors say the case overstates the problems with public defender programs. In some areas, the system is “working well and protecting every right,” said Kathleen B. Hogan, the president of the State District Attorneys Association.
But Corey Stoughton of the Civil Liberties Union, the lead lawyer in the case, said defense programs were chronically starved of money for decades because officials in every branch of government never made the adequate representation of indigents a political priority.
Because of the poor quality of representation, innocent people are convicted and defendants routinely face pressure to plead guilty, Ms. Stoughton said.
“The case-by-case method fails,” she said. “The political method fails. For decades, the State of New York has been on notice that the public defense system is in crisis and fails to meet basic constitutional responsibilities.”
By WILLIAM GLABERSON
Published: March 15, 2010
New York Times