The highest court in New York ruled Thursday that a broad class-action suit disputing the way the state provides public defenders can move forward, because enough signs show that the system is failing poor people, reported the New York Times.
After the 4-3 ruling by the State Court of Appeals, civil liberties lawyers said the suit could be a model for related challenges around the country, said the Times.
The ruling, written by the state's chief judge, Jonathan Lippman, said the suit could proceed because it questioned the fairness of the criminal justice system. The suit had been opposed by the state, said the Times.
"Wrongful conviction, the ultimate sign of a criminal justice system's breakdown and failure, has been documented in too many cases," said the decision.
After decades of reports and findings by state commissions that New York's system for providing lawyers for defendants, as required by the constitution, is inadequate, this ruling is a milestone. The Times reports the majority of lawyers appointed were inattentive, unavailable, poorly trained and poorly supervised, and dealt with large caseloads. The ruling noted that poor defendants are regularly arraigned without any lawyers during the initial process, where bail is set and many defendants are sent to jail.
A trial or settlement in New York can now take place, as it has in several other states that faced similar challenges. The Times reports that Connecticut, Indiana, Minnesota, and Montana have all dealt with class-action suits over public defense systems that have ended with irregular decisions and settlements. The Michigan Supreme Court allowed a similar challenge to proceed just last month.
Some believe the improvements civil liberties lawyers are seeking 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 the right every day," Daniel Greenberg, a lawyer at Schulte Roth & Zabel, told the Times. The firm filed the suit with the New York Civil Liberties Union. Greenberg was referring to the historical 1963 Supreme Court ruling, Gideon v. Wainwright, that said poor people facing criminal charges have the right to a lawyer.
A statement from Gov. Paterson's office said it was reviewing the decision. The statement also said that at an event with Judge Lippman on Monday, Paterson announced he would work with him to improve state public defender services.
"We both agree that the current system is a disgrace," said the governor at the event.
The suit was filed in the name of Kimberly Hurell-Harring, a Rochester woman, and 19 other people facing criminal charges in the Onondago, Ontario, Schuyler, Suffolk, and Washington counties.
Hurell-Harring claimed that a Washington County public defender pressured her to plead guilty after a felony arrest for attempting to sneak marijuana to her husband, who was in jail, said the Times.
The state argued the case, saying it would be a judicial invasion of the Legislature's and the governor's authority, which was reinforced by the three-judge dissent, written by Judge Eugene F. Pigott Jr., said the Times. It said that "there is no doubt that there are inadequacies in the delivery of indignant legal services" but added that this kind of complaint should be addressed to the Legislature.
The Times said 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 all parts of the state, named in the suit.
New York's defender system is made up of Legal Aid societies, private lawyers appointed by the courts, and local public defender offices. The Times said more than 80 percent of defendants facing criminal charges can't afford to pay for lawyers, meaning public defender systems define most criminal justice systems in the United States.
Defendants who say they were not properly represented must wait to bring the argument in an appeal after the conviction. The civil liberties lawyers in New York believe that a broad review was needed in a class-action case because case-by-case appeals don't address systemic failings, reported the Times.
The class-action suit has law enforcement officials divided. Some prosecutors said the case overstated the problems with public defender programs, while others said poorly financed defender programs dismiss the credibility of the whole criminal justice system, said the Times.
Gov. Paterson has suggested legislation that would make an Office of Indigent Defense to monitor the current system, said the Times. The bill would also provide a $7 million increase in state subsidies.
Thursday's 4-to-3 decision is the latest in the liberal rulings by Judge Lippman, who was appointed to the state's court last year. The court's newer rulings are notably sympathetic to environmental, civil liberties, and criminal defense arguments, reported the Times.
The majority of judges in Lippman's court were appointed by former Republican Gov. George Pataki, and the judges voted along party lines, as in other rulings. However, Judge Victoria A. Graffeo, a Pataki appointee, joined the three Democratic judges to form the majority.