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COA reinstates suit on indigent defense

Judge Pigott writes dissent

ALBANY — The New York State Court of Appeals on Thursday reinstated a lawsuit challenging the state’s system for representing poor defendants in criminal cases, rejecting arguments that fixing its failings should be left to the Legislature or decided case-by-case after convictions.

The 4-3 ruling from the Court of Appeals reversed a lower court that dismissed the 2007 suit by the New York Civil Liberties Union on behalf of 20 defendants, including one who went five months without a lawyer.

The group wants class-action status and an injunction to stop further violations of constitutional rights to counsel.

Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman, writing for the majority, rejected the lower court’s conclusion that the issue was simply poor performance by individual lawyers in five counties cited by the NYCLU. Chief Judge Lippman noted the complaint claimed 10 defendants had no lawyer at their arraignments, and eight were sent straight to jail with bail set beyond what they could afford.

“It is alleged that the experience of these plaintiffs is illustrative of what is a fairly common practice in the aforementioned counties,” he wrote.

The state may have to spend more or reallocate funds to address the problems at a time when money is tight, but that doesn’t relieve the court of its “essential obligation” to remedy violations of constitutional rights, he said.

Judges Carmen Beauchamp Ciparick, Victoria Graffeo and Theodore Jones Jr. concurred.

The ruling sends the case back to the lower court. The plaintiffs had criminal cases in Onondaga, Ontario, Washington, Schuyler and Suffolk counties.

Dissenting judges acknowledged inadequacies in the indigent defense services handled at the county level, as noted by a commission headed by former Chief Judge Judith S. Kaye, but said they should not be fixed in a civil proceeding.

“Plaintiffs’ mere lumping together of 20 generic ineffective assistance of counsel claims into one civil pleading does not … transform it into one alleging a systemic denial of the right to counsel,” Judge Eugene Pigott Jr. wrote.

Judge Pigott rejected the majority’s rationale of “constructive denial” of the right to a lawyer, adding that none of the 10 defendants arraigned without counsel pleaded guilty, and all met with lawyers soon after.

Judges Susan Read and Robert Smith agreed with Judge Pigott, who also wrote that the other issues were “basic ineffective assistance of counsel claims,” including that assigned lawyers were unreachable, unprepared, missing from proceedings or waived basic rights.

“Legal services for the indigent have routinely been underfunded, and appointed counsel are all too often overworked and confronted with excessive caseloads, which affects the amount of time counsel may spend with any given client,” Judge Pigott wrote. “This complaint is, at heart, an attempt to convert what are properly policy questions for the Legislature into constitutional claims for the courts.”

NYCLU Executive Director Donna Lieberman said the situation varies in each county, but former Chief Judge Kaye’s commission found pervasive flaws in criminal defense services statewide.

“We look forward to proving our case in court and achieving the systemic remedy that’s really long overdue,” Lieberman said.

A message left for New York Solicitor General Barbara Underwood, who represented the state in the case, was not immediately returned.