New York’s highest court today ruled that the New York Civil Liberties Union may proceed with its landmark case that charges New York State with failing its constitutional duty to provide effective counsel to poor New Yorkers accused of crimes.
“With this victory, New York is a step closer to justice,” said NYCLU Executive Director Donna Lieberman. “Justice should not depend on the size of your wallet. But every day in courtrooms throughout the state, New Yorkers are denied justice simply because they are poor.”
The class action lawsuit, filed in 2007 by the NYCLU and the law firm of Schulte Roth & Zabel LLP, charges that poor criminal defendants are being unconstitutionally denied their right to a lawyer and seeks systemic reform.
The 4-to-3 ruling paves the way for a trial in the lawsuit, Hurrell-Harring et al. v. State of New York. The case was filed on behalf of all criminal defendants in Onondaga, Ontario, Schuyler, Suffolk and Washington counties who have encountered an unconstitutional public defense system.
“The Court today held that if defendants are not getting lawyers or are getting lawyers whose ability to represent clients is so seriously compromised that it is as if no attorney is present, then the constitution is violated,” said NYCLU Legal Director Arthur Eisenberg. “It has been shown time and again that the system of public defense in New York is so compromised.”
The failures of the state’s fractured public defense system are widely accepted. The inadequacy of the patchwork county-driven, largely county-funded scheme has been well-documented for more than 40 years in dozens of reports by legal advocacy organizations, professional associations and government commissions. In June 2006, a commission appointed by then-Chief Judge Judith Kaye concluded that the state’s public defense system is “severely dysfunctional” and “structurally incapable” of providing people effective legal representation. But the State Legislature has failed to act.
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 appear in court without a lawyer at critical junctures, such as when bail decisions are made. This often results in unnecessary or excessive bail being set and keeps people who cannot afford it in jail awaiting trial. Many public defense lawyers also fail to meet or consult with clients at critical stages in their cases; investigate the charges against their clients or hire experts who can assist with case preparation or testify at trial; file important motions; and provide meaningful consultation before clients accept plea bargains, regardless of whether a charge is appropriate or a viable defense exists.
Kimberly Hurrell-Harring, the lead plaintiff in the case, provides but one example of the state’s failure to provide adequate public defense services. Hurrell-Harring had a clean record when she was caught in 2007 bringing a small amount of marijuana to her husband in prison. She was assigned a Washington County public defender who refused to take her phone calls and allowed her to be convicted of a crime more serious than the one she actually committed. Because of her lawyer’s mistakes, the mother of two spent four unnecessary months in jail and lost her nurse’s license, job and home.
Hurrell-Harring’s nightmare didn’t end until October, 2009. More than two years after she was arrested, an appellate court reversed her conviction.
“What happened to Kimberly is not an isolated case of justice gone wrong,” said Corey Stoughton, NYCLU senior staff attorney and the lead counsel on the case. “Every day, New Yorkers are denied justice simply because they are poor. Unlike Kimberly, who was lucky to attract the pro bono assistance of a big New York law firm to handle her appeal, they are left to fend for themselves without lawyers capable of providing a meaningful defense.”
New York is one of only six states that have no statewide responsibility or oversight mechanism for public defense and remains among a minority of states, including Alabama and Mississippi, that have failed to join the movement toward full state funding.
Attorneys on the case for the NYCLU include Stoughton, Eisenberg, Lieberman and Associate Legal Director Christopher Dunn, and for Schulte, Roth & Zabel they include Gary Stein and Danny Greenberg.