Hurrell-Harring et al. v. State of New York (Challenging New York State's failure to provide adequate public defense services)

State Supreme Court, Albany County, Index No. 8866-07 (direct)

This case addressed the State of New York’s failure to create and support a public defense system that ensured indigent criminal defendants would receive meaningful and effective assistance of counsel.

On Nov. 8, 2007, the NYCLU filed the class action lawsuit Hurrell-Harring, et al. v. State of New York on behalf of 20 named criminal defendants who are or will be represented by public defenders, legal aid lawyers and assigned counsel.

The lawsuit argued that New York’s failure to provide adequate funding, resources and oversight to the public defense system threatened to deprive these defendants and the class they represent of their constitutional right to meaningful and effective assistance of counsel.

The NYCLU’s lawsuit came on the heels of Chief Judge Judith S. Kaye’s 2006 report Commission on the Future of Indigent Defense Services, Final Report to the Chief Judge of the State of New York (PDF), which concluded that “the indigent defense system in New York State is both severely dysfunctional and structurally incapable of providing each poor defendant with the effective legal representation that he or she is guaranteed by the Constitution of The United States and the Constitution and laws of the State of New York.” The report highlights the findings of a two-year statewide study conducted by The Spangenberg Group titled Status of Indigent Defense in New York: A Study for Chief Judge Kaye’s Commission on the Future of Indigent Defense Services (PDF).

In its own investigation of New York’s public defense system, the NYCLU found several symptoms of an unconstitutional public defense system common in all, echoing the findings of both the Kaye Commission Report and the Spangenberg Group’s study. These flaws include, but are not limited to:

  • a failure to provide representation for some defendants in critical stages;
  • incoherent or excessively restrictive eligibility standards that exclude indigent people from getting counsel;
  • a lack of attorney-client consultation and communication;
  • a lack of hiring criteria, performance standards, supervisory controls and training;
  • a lack of resources for investigations and expert services;
  • overwhelming caseloads and/or workloads;
  • a lack of vertical representation;
  • a lack of independence from judicial, prosecutorial and political authorities; and
  • inadequate resources and compensation, especially as compared with the prosecution.

On March 27, 2008, the NYCLU filed a motion for preliminary injunction asking the court to emergency measures to improve the quality of public defense services in the five counties named in the lawsuit. On Aug. 1, 2008, State Supreme Court Justice Eugene P. Devine denied the state's motion to dismiss the case.

In July 2009, the Third Department of the Appellate Division, in a split decision, reversed the lower court’s denial of the state’s motion to dismiss. The majority held, over a fierce dissent by two justices, that the right to counsel can only be enforced through retrospective, post-conviction claims of ineffective assistance of counsel. Also in July, the trial court denied plaintiffs' motions for preliminary injunction and for class certification in the case. The preliminary injunction motion sought emergency measures to improve the quality of public defense services in the five counties that are the subject of the lawsuit. Notices of appeal regarding the denial of the preliminary injunction and class certification motions have been filed.

Plaintiffs appealed the Appellate Division's decision to the Court of Appeals. On May 6, 2010, the Court of Appeals overturned the lower court and allowed the lawsuit to proceed.

On Jan. 6, 2011, a three-judge panel of the Appellate Division, Third Department granted plaintiffs' motion for class certification, reversing the lower court's decision.

On October 21, 2014, the NYCLU and Schulte Roth & Zabel LLP announced a historic settlement the day before Hurrell-Harring v. New York was set to begin trial.

Under the agreement, the state will adopt major reforms focusing on five New York counties – Ontario, Onondaga (Syracuse), Schuyler, Suffolk and Washington. The agreement, which will last 7½ years and is subject to court approval, contains the following major provisions:

  • Ensures that every poor criminal defendant will have a lawyer at the first court appearance, where bail often is set and pleas taken;
  • Requires New York to hire sufficient lawyers, investigators and support staff to ensure that all poor criminal defendants have lawyers with the time and support necessary to vigorously represent the defendant;
  • Provides for the setting of caseload standards that will substantially limit the number of cases any lawyer can carry, thereby ensuring that poor criminal defendants get a real defense;
  • Requires New York to spend $4 million over the next two years to increase attorney communications with poor criminal defendants, promote the use of investigators and experts, and improve the qualifications, training and supervision of lawyers representing indigent defendants;
  • Mandates the creation of eligibility standards for representation, thus allowing more New Yorkers to access public defense services;
  • Strengthens the Office of Indigent Legal Services as a state-level oversight entity tasked with ensuring the constitutional provision of public defense services and commits New York to provide the office with the resources it needs to develop plans and implement and monitor reforms mandated by the settlement; and
  • Provides that the plaintiffs will receive detailed reports allowing them to monitor compliance with the agreement and, if necessary, return to court to enforce it.

Corey Stoughton was the NYCLU’s lead counsel on this case. NYCLU staff who have worked on the case also include Christopher Dunn, Art Eisenberg, Donna Lieberman, Mariko Hirose, Erin Harrist, Philip Desgranges, Barrie Gewanter, Dana Wolfe, Noah Breslau, Malita Picasso, Alexis Karteron, Melanie Trimble, Amol Sinha, Rebecca Engel, Taylor Pendergrass, Deborah Berkman, Daniel Freeman, Palyn Hung, Jeffrey Fogel, Susannah Karlsson, Brooke Menschel, Alia al-Khatib, and Demetrius Thomas. Schulte Roth & Zabel LLP counsel included Danny Greenberg, Gary Stein, and Kristie Blase.