NEW YORK—The Department of Justice threw its support behind a class-action lawsuit accusing New York state of violating the constitutional rights of people who can’t afford lawyers, presaging a continued expansion of federal oversight in state and municipal courts.
Attorney General Eric Holder filed a statement of interest Thursday in the Albany County Supreme Court that, nominally neutral to the merits of Hurrell-Harring v. New York State, supported the plaintiff’s charge of the systemic inadequacy of indigent legal defense services.
“The Department of Justice is committed to addressing the inequalities that unfold every day in America’s courtrooms, and to fulfilling the Supreme Court’s historic decision in Gideon v. Wainwright,” Holder said in a statement. “America’s indigent defense systems exist in a state of crisis, and over 50 years after it was made, the promise of Gideon is not being met.”
The suit, filed by the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) 7 years ago, argues that substandard legal defense services offered to the poor in five state counties violated their right to counsel, a constitutional right since the Gideon decision. A court trial is set for October 7.
Holder filed a brief in a similar case last August, bolstering a class-action suit charging the cities of Mount Vernon and Burlington, both in Washington state, with violating the right to counsel of those who couldn’t afford to hire their own defense.
In December, a U.S. District Court judge ruled in Wilbur v. City of Mount Vernon that the cities’ public defenders have excessively high caseloads, which prevented them from providing ‘meaningful’ legal defense. The judge ordered the cities to meet a host of new requirements, including the hiring of a new part-time public defender whose salaries were not drawn from the existing public defense budget.
Campaign for Indigent Rights
The NYCLU released a report last week arguing the the public defense services in the five counties named in Hurrell-Harring were systemically underfunded.
Co-authored by the NYCLU and lawyers from the firm representing the plaintiff, the report recommends that public defense move away from its current county-based funding system in favor of control by a state agency. They also want a lower caseload for public defense attorneys.
New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman—the lead defense counsel for the state—has contested the suit on procedural grounds, arguing that the suit overreaches the purview of the judiciary.
“The question before the Court is not whether additional resources could improve indigent legal services in New York. That, as the Court of Appeals has indicated, is a legislative determination,” Schneiderman wrote in defense memorandum from last year. “As the State’s proof will demonstrate, the State and the Five Counties meet or exceed the Constitutional standards.”
The memorandum notes that for the state to violate the plaintiff’s Sixth Amendment rights, there must be demonstrated “non-representation” at a “critical stage” of court proceedings, as set by the Supreme Court decisions in Strickland v. Washington and United States v. Cronic, a standard that is widely recognized as extremely hard to meet.
“After approximately sixty depositions involving more than 10,000 pages of transcripts … the plaintiffs have had ample opportunity to demonstrate that they have evidence sufficient to prove their overarching allegations,” Schneiderman wrote. “The heft of the record of discovery, however, cannot obscure a simple fact: plaintiffs do not have a case. Their theories, as laudably inended as they may be, are just that – theories.”
Spurred by the lawsuit, the Cuomo administration created the Office of Indigent Legal Services in 2010 to provide aide and funding to public defense offices across the state, for which $82.8 million was appropriated in the 2013-4 budget alone.