The big news of the weekend thus far, for me at least, has been the announcement by the NYCLU that it is filing suit in New York, alleging Constitutional violations by the State for its failure to provide adequate resources to public defenders.
From the press release:
“Every day, in courtrooms throughout the state, New Yorkers are denied justice simply because they are poor. Justice should not depend on your ZIP code or the size of your wallet,” said Donna Lieberman, executive director of the NYCLU. “We filed this lawsuit today as a last resort, in response to the constitutional deficiencies identified by a commission appointed by Chief Judge Kaye to evaluate our public defense system, and the failure of lawmakers to compel the state to repair what is clearly a broken and unjust system.”
The class action lawsuit charges that a lack of adequate funding, oversight and statewide standards is denying New Yorkers accused of crimes their lawful right to competent, qualified and timely representation at all stages of the justice process, a violation of the U.S. Constitution, the state constitution and the laws of New York.
It is extremely annoying that it has to come to this. New York could have, at the very least, learned from Connecticut. It was a CCLU and ACLU lawsuit in Connecticut – Rivera v. Rowland – that forced the legislature to increase funding by millions and double the number of positions in the system. The settlement of that lawsuit led to a wholesale revamping of the public defender’s system in CT, with better pay, more positions, more training, lower caseloads. This was in 1999. Now, almost 8 years later, New York is facing the same crisis.
It is great, on the other hand, because this will undoubtedly force New York to take action. New York is one of only 6 states remaining 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.
Make no mistake: this is not a panacea. Caseloads will still be high, public defenders will still be understaffed, berated and maligned. However, they will be in a better position to fight those charges and the charges brought by the State against indigent defendants.