“This right (to a competent attorney) is so fundamental to the operation of the criminal justice system that its diminishment erodes the principles of liberty and justice that underpin all of our civil rights in criminal proceedings.”, Molly J. Moran, Acting Assistant Attorney General, U.S. Department of Justice
“How can anyone argue that providing poor Americans with proper legal representation in our government’s criminal proceedings is NOT a basic Constitutional right, when the outcome of those proceedings may result in loss of their life, liberty, and/or the pursuit of happiness (and the outcome is far more likely to be incorrect, without adequate legal representation)?”, Mike Perry
Holder Backs Suit in New York Faulting Legal Service for Poor
By MATT APUZZO
Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. spoke Tuesday at New York University School of Law. Last year, Mr. Holder told colleagues that ensuring equal access to lawyers was “our moral calling.” Credit Julio Cortez/Associated Press
WASHINGTON — Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., who last year declared a crisis in America’s legal-defense system for the poor, is supporting a class-action lawsuit that accuses Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and the State of New York of perpetuating a system that violates the rights of people who cannot afford to hire lawyers.
The lawsuit claims that public defenders in New York are so overworked and overmatched that poor people essentially receive no legal defense at all. It describes a system in which indigent defendants navigate courts nearly alone, relying on spotty advice from lawyers who do not have the time or money to investigate their cases or advise them properly.
Because of substandard legal aid, children are taken from their parents, defendants in minor cases are jailed for long periods and people are imprisoned for crimes for which they might have been acquitted, the civil rights lawyers who filed the suit said.
Although the United States is not a party to the case, Mr. Holder is using the same core legal arguments as the plaintiffs and the weight of the federal government to resolve what he sees as deep-seated unfairness in local criminal courts. His views will bring national attention to a case that has mainly been of interest in New York. After Mr. Holder weighed in last year in a similar case in Washington State, the judge strongly rebuked the public-defense systems in two cities there and ordered improvements.
If the New York lawsuit succeeds, the state could be forced to take over the public-defense system, which is now run by county governments. Such an outcome would also quite likely encourage similar lawsuits, and, in turn, additional intervention by the Justice Department.
Mr. Holder has made the right to legal representation part of a broad effort to address inequities in the criminal justice system. He has pushed to reduce harsh sentences that were adopted during the country’s crack epidemic, for example, and to eliminate mandatory-minimum sentences for nonviolent drug crimes.
“To truly guarantee adequate representation for low-income defendants, we must ensure that public defenders’ caseloads allow them to do an effective job,” Mr. Holder said in a statement. “The Department of Justice is committed to addressing the inequalities that unfold every day in America’s courtrooms.”
The lawsuit, which was filed by the New York Civil Liberties Union, has been winding through the courts for seven years and is set for trial on Oct. 7. It names three upstate counties — Onondaga, Schuyler and Washington — and Suffolk County on Long Island as defendants.
In some felony cases, according to the lawsuit, staffing shortages have meant that defendants spoke to their lawyers for less than one hour. Some lawyers said they had never spoken with their clients in person. Investigators, whose work might undermine the prosecution and offer reasonable doubt, were rarely hired.
While the Justice Department is not officially taking sides in the case, in court documents — called a “statement of interest,” similar to an amicus brief — to be filed in State Supreme Court in Albany on Thursday, government lawyers write that threadbare budgets and vast caseloads can “force even otherwise competent and well-intentioned public defenders into a position where they are, in effect, a lawyer in name only.”
Mr. Holder, who was once a Superior Court judge in Washington, D.C., has offered more federal money and training to support public defenders. But only state and local governments can make significant changes. The court filing on Thursday is part of a nascent Justice Department effort to piggyback on state lawsuits that aim to force those changes.
“It would be a revolution in how the public-defense system is operated,” Corey Stoughton, the lead lawyer on the case for the New York Civil Liberties Union, said. “The state thinks that the responsibility belongs to the county governments. But the counties don’t have the tax base or the political will.”
The Sixth Amendment guarantees the right to legal representation, but it was the landmark 1963 Supreme Court case Gideon v. Wainwright that forced states to provide defense lawyers to poor people charged with serious crimes. Two years later, New York created a public-defense system run by the counties, not the state.
In 2006, a commission appointed by the state’s chief judge, Judith S. Kaye, found that the patchwork system provided “an unconstitutional level” of legal defense, “based on no factor other than geography.” Civil rights lawyers filed the New York class-action lawsuit the following year.
The New York public-defender system has been “abusing low- and middle-class people in this system since 1965,” said Jonathan E. Gradess, the executive director of the New York State Defenders Association, who said he expected to testify at trial. “It’s broken. It’s just terrible. We’re just damaging people every single day.”
But Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman of New York, the lead lawyer defending the state against the lawsuit, has argued in court documents that the plaintiffs in the lawsuit offer no proof that their rights were violated. Even if lawyers provided inadequate representation in some cases, Mr. Schneiderman said, that does not prove a systemic problem.
“Plaintiffs do not have a case,” Mr. Schneiderman wrote last year. “Their theories, as laudably intended as they may be, are just that — theories.”
In its filing, the Justice Department urges Justice Gerald W. Connolly, who is overseeing the case, to review the system as a whole, not individual cases, arguing that the right to a competent lawyer is central to American justice. “This right is so fundamental to the operation of the criminal justice system that its diminishment erodes the principles of liberty and justice that underpin all of our civil rights in criminal proceedings,” wrote Molly J. Moran, the Justice Department’s top civil rights prosecutor.
Civil rights lawyers said public-defender offices in New York received so little money that they were chronically understaffed. A public defender could handle hundreds of cases per year, in some instances hundreds at any one time.
In Suffolk County, where the Legal Aid Society takes on over 25,000 criminal cases a year, the agency’s five investigators lacked sufficient training and spent most of their time on administrative duties, the suit said.
In 2011, the state created the Office of Indigent Legal Services to help improve legal defense for the poor, but part of its budget has been transferred elsewhere. Several county leaders have called for the state to take over the public-defender system, but that would mean creating a costly new structure from scratch.
“This is a problem that’s going to require a substantial investment in reform,” said Ms. Stoughton, the civil rights lawyer.
Mr. Gradess said that, decades ago, he believed a county-based defense system could work, with the right structure and enough money. But he soon changed his mind. “It’s a really primitive system,” he said.
Last year, at a ceremony marking the 50th anniversary of the Gideon ruling, Mr. Holder told Justice Department colleagues that ensuring equal access to lawyers was “our solemn responsibility and our moral calling.”