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NYCLU Sues To Enforce Public Defense Reforms In New York State

NEW YORK – Today, the New York Civil Liberties Union and the law firms, Schulte Roth & Zabel LLP and Felicello Law P.C., sued New York State in Albany County for failing to meet its public defense obligations under the historic settlement reached in the Hurrell-Harring v. New York lawsuit.

After years of litigation culminating in a landmark settlement in 2014, Hurrell-Harring overhauled the state’s broken public defense system by requiring constitutionally-adequate representation for New Yorkers who are unable to afford a lawyer. The settlement’s fundamental reforms changed the indigent defense landscape statewide. But the state has recently violated the settlement by failing to adequately fund assigned counsel programs, creating a new crisis in public defense including chronic understaffing, overwhelming workloads, and ultimately, a lack of constitutionally-mandated counsel.

“Public defense opens the door for New Yorkers to have their fair day in court,” said New York Civil Liberties Union Executive Director Donna Lieberman. “If the state doesn’t adequately fund public defense, New York will fall deeper into the trap of a court system that only works for the wealthy. State lawmakers must use the upcoming budget negotiations to ensure no one’s life or liberty is compromised simply because they can’t afford to hire a lawyer.”

“For years, the Hurrell-Harring settlement set the standard for just public defense infrastructure, but recently, the state has not held up its end of the bargain,” said New York Civil Liberties Union Staff Attorney JP Perry. “By neglecting its constitutional obligations to provide high-quality legal representation, New York is forcing some of its most vulnerable residents to navigate the legal system with public defenders lacking necessary resources or support, or in worse cases, alone. The state must uphold its commitment to a better, more humane justice system. It must fully fund the assigned counsel programs so all New Yorkers are fairly protected and defended in court.”

“This lawsuit seeks to hold the State accountable for its persistent and unjustified failure to raise assigned counsel rates,” said Schulte Roth & Zabel special counsel Hannah M. Thibideau. “This has led to attorneys leaving assigned counsel programs in droves and to a significant deterioration in the ability of those attorneys who remain to properly represent their clients.  Schulte Roth is committed to protecting indigent defendants’ constitutional right to counsel and to ensuring that the State lives up to the commitments it made in the Hurrell-Harring settlement.”

“Equal criminal justice for poor people is a constitutional right that the Hurrell-Harring Settlement Order guaranteed 8 years ago,” said Felicello Law P.C. Partner Kristie M. Blase. “The State has failed to meet its obligations by not properly funding assigned counsel programs and attorneys, making our State’s criminal justice system no longer fair or even handed. Today, we bring suit to force the State to comply with its obligations under the Hurrell-Harring Settlement Order and increase the hourly rates and caps for assigned counsel immediately.”

Under Hurrell-Harring, the state adopted significant reforms in five New York counties: Ontario, Onondaga, Schuyler, Suffolk, and Washington. This marked the first time any State acknowledged its public defense responsibilities and set the standard for fair, equitable public defense across the nation. In 2017, these reforms were expanded statewide, to all counties in New York. As the income gap grows in New York, Sixth Amendment protections have only become more critical to ensuring all New Yorkers’ rights are defended and upheld.

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