The New York Civil Liberties Union, and the law firm of Schulte Roth & Zabel LLP working as cooperating pro bono attorneys, won a significant first victory in their landmark lawsuit seeking to repair New York State’s broken public defense system. State Supreme Court Justice Eugene P. Devine has denied New York State’s motion to dismiss the case. This now clears the way for the NYCLU to proceed with its motion, filed in March, for immediate emergency relief.

“This decision clears the path toward our pursuit of an effective and fair public defense system that protects New Yorkers’ constitutional rights,” said Donna Lieberman, the NYCLU’s executive director. “The state’s broken public defense system can and must be fixed. Unfortunately, the legislature has failed to address this crisis, forcing us to take action in the courts.”

In November, the plaintiffs filed a class action lawsuit in State Supreme Court in Albany that charged the state with failing to uphold its constitutional duty to provide effective counsel to thousands of New Yorkers who are accused of crimes and cannot afford private lawyers.

The class action lawsuit claims that a lack of adequate funding, oversight and statewide standards creates “a severe risk” that New Yorkers accused of crimes who cannot afford to retain counsel will not receive “effective assistance of counsel.” Consequently, New York’s public defense system violates the U.S. Constitution, the state constitution and the laws of New York. In denying the State’s motion to dismiss, Justice Devine will allow the case to proceed on the basis of this legal claim.

Plaintiffs are defendants in Onondaga, Ontario, Schuyler, Suffolk and Washington counties who have encountered these problems, but the lawsuit seeks systemic reform that would likely benefit all defendants statewide who are or will be charged with felonies, misdemeanors or lesser offenses and who cannot afford a lawyer.

Currently, court-appointed lawyers across the state are overwhelmed by huge caseloads and lack sufficient staff and resources to do their jobs. Some lack the necessary experience and training to competently handle their cases.

As a result of these deficiencies, many individuals facing criminal charges are compelled to appear in court without a lawyer at critical junctures, such as when bail decisions are made. This often results in excessive bail being set and keeps too many people in jail awaiting trial. Studies link high bail to an increased likelihood of conviction.

“The public defense crisis in New York is unfair both to defendants and to the lawyers who are charged with representing them,” said Danny Greenberg, special counsel for pro bono initiatives at Schulte Roth. “Defendants are denied justice because they cannot afford to pay private lawyers, and public defense attorneys are not given the resources, tools and training they need to do right by their clients.”

In March, the NYCLU and Schulte Roth filed a motion seeking immediate, emergency relief in the five counties named in the lawsuit. This relief must ensure that all criminal defendants are appointed a competent, knowledgeable attorney with sufficient time and resources. A ruling on the motion is pending.