Justice Department Issues Landmark Support for Public Defense Suit

Affiliate: ACLU of New York
September 25, 2014 2:45 pm

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NEW YORK – The Justice Department today submitted a “statement of interest” in a case filed by the New York Civil Liberties Union and the law firm of Schulte, Roth and Zabel LLP aimed at overhauling the state’s public defense system and slated to go to trial on Oct. 7. This is the first time that the Department of Justice has weighed in on public defense in a state court proceeding in the more than 50 years since the U.S. Supreme Court held that states must provide the right to counsel to poor people accused of crimes.

“The eyes of the nation are now on New York,” said NYCLU Executive Director Donna Lieberman. “The Justice Department’s backing underscores how important this lawsuit is in making equal access to justice a reality for all New Yorkers and all Americans. Governor Cuomo and state leaders must finally end New York’s shame and overhaul our public defense system. New York should be a model for the country, not a symbol of failure.”

For the past seven years, the NYCLU and Schulte Roth and Zabel have been suing the state for violating the U.S. Constitution, state constitution, and the laws of New York because of its failure to provide public defense services to poor people accused of crimes, instead dumping the responsibility onto its counties. Last week, the NYCLU released a report revealing data collected over the course of the lawsuit that exposed how public defense attorneys in most of the state sometimes carry caseloads as much as five times the recommended maximums, too often leaving poor defendants alone at arraignments or excluded from access to necessary services like case investigation.

Gary Stein, the Schulte Roth & Zabel partner who is leading the firm’s massive pro-bono effort in the case, added, “As a former federal prosecutor, I know how vital it is to have a properly functioning, adequately resourced system of public defense. Our justice system depends on it. Schulte, Roth & Zabel is deeply committed to vigorously pursuing this case to its successful conclusion.”

“To truly guarantee adequate representation for low-income defendants, we must ensure that public defenders’ caseloads allow them to do an effective job,” Attorney General Holder said in a statement today. “The Department of Justice is committed to addressing the inequalities that unfold every day in America’s courtrooms.”

The Justice Department’s statement of Interest in a lawsuit where the United States is not a party indicates the significant national attention and consequences that could arise from the decision in the NYCLU’s case, Hurrell-Harring v. State of New York. In its filing, the Justice Department recognized that systemic conditions like lack of resources and high workloads make it impossible for attorneys to represent indigent clients fairly. The filing suggests that states could soon be held accountable for their failure to provide adequate legal services to poor people accused of crimes.

“The Department of Justice’s statement sends a strong signal in New York and across the nation that broken public defense systems compromise the quality of justice in America and should not be tolerated,” said Corey Stoughton, NYCLU senior staff attorney and lead counsel on the case. “Every day people are evicted, fired, and lose their kids because they are thrown into a criminal justice system where the lawyers charged with ensuring fair process and just outcomes aren’t able to do their jobs.”

“The Department of Justice’s intervention in New York State is historic, and demonstrates yet again its deep commitment to fixing our nation’s public defense crisis and advancing criminal justice reform,” said Vanita Gupta, Deputy Legal Director of the ACLU. “There is no question that this action will have deep reverberations across the nation for other ongoing public defense and criminal justice reform efforts.”

The Justice Department’s statement of interest was filed in the State Supreme Court in Albany on Thursday while the NYCLU was in the state capital with its Wheel of Justice – a seven-foot tall Wheel of Fortune-style game – that shows how for the poor in New York, justice is a gamble. Last night, the NYCLU broadcast the Wheel of Justice game on the Central Warehouse in Albany and projected giant illuminated signs on the Albany Justice Building and performing arts venue “The Egg” that said “Fix Public Defense” and “Justice for All.”

The Justice Department’s statement is available: http://www.nyclu.org/files/releases/hh_brief.pdf

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