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 addresses the State of New York’s failure to create and support a public defense system that ensures indigent criminal defendants will 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 argues that New York’s failure to provide adequate funding, resources and oversight to the public defense system threatens to deprive these defendants and the class they represent of their constitutional right to meaningful and effective assistance of counsel.

The NYCLU’s lawsuit comes 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 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.

Corey Stoughton is the NYCLU’s lead counsel on this case. She is joined by a team that includes Christopher Dunn, Art Eisenberg, Donna Lieberman, and Schulte Roth & Zabel LLP as cooperating counsel (Danny Greenberg, Gary Stein and Sena Kim-Reuter).