MANHATTAN (CN) – Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s competitive bidding plan to select counsel for indigent defendants threatens an “already overburdened and underfunded” system,” the Bar Associations of New York City’s five boroughs claim in New York County Court.
The Bar Associations claim that in 1965 they helped create the system of representation for criminal defendants who cannot otherwise afford counsel.
Bloomberg filed an executive order in 2008 to abandon the 1965 structure.
The mayor’s criminal justice coordinator, John Feinblatt, issued a Request for Proposal in February this year, and made the mayor’s office responsible for assigning indigent defense counsel based on “a confidential competitive procurement process.”
“Taken together, the Request for Proposal and Executive Order 132 emphasize cost-cutting measures that threaten to render the ‘true administration of justice’ a class-dependent concept,” the Bar groups say, quoting a George Washington inscription above the State Supreme Courthouse doors.
Under the 1965 system, county law 18-B was enacted to give indigent defendants four options for representation: public defender, private legal aid society, private attorneys who are paid an hourly rate and furnished by a Bar and approved by a state administrator, or any combination of those plans.
“By reserving oversight for the county bars and the courts, Article 18-B ensures that the city cannot unilaterally fashion an indigent defense system by fiat,” according to the 51-page complaint.
The Bar Associations claim Article 18-B was left in place when Bloomberg repealed Order 178 in 2008, and the new bidding system is in violation.
“New York City’s indigent defense system is already over-burdened and under-funded,” according to the complaint. “Respondents’ proposed overhaul of the system, through Executive Order 132 and the Request for Proposal, threatens to further stress and financially starve both the institutional providers and any remaining private attorney panels under the control of the city without any participation by the county bars as advocates and monitors for the constitutional rights of the indigent.”
The bidding system, moreover, is also a “new, untested system in which there are no stakeholders free from financial conflicts of interest,” the bar associations claim.
They say they want to reinstate the 1965 system “to protect the rights of countless poor New Yorkers whose Constitutional right to the effective assistance of counsel is imminently threatened by respondents’ plans to replace a legislatively mandated indigent defense system.”
Because the city plans to award contracts “in a manner that is cost-effective for [the City] and most likely to achieve the [criminal justice coordinator’s] goals,” the mayor’s office will be biased, according to the complaint.
“This places the mayor’s office in a clear conflict position between its obligations to provide indigent defense and its overarching budgetary concerns,” the Bar Associations claim.
The new system comes with a 30 percent drop in funding, according to the complaint. Whereas the budget for indigent defense counsel in the city was $140.1 million in 2009 and nearly $152 million in 2008, the budget for Bloomberg’s “entire new plan” is just $101.1 million, the Bar groups claim.
“The city’s unilateral overhaul of the 1965 Bar Plan, particularly when viewed in the context of the proposed budget, threatens to financially starve an already malnourished indigent defense system in violation of the New York and United States Constitutions,” according to the complaint.
The Bar Associations say this funding cut is especially concerning since there is no sign of a reduction in “burgeoning caseloads.”
“Particularly in times of economic crisis, there is every reason to believe the number of people qualifying for assigned counsel will increase,” according to the complaint.The Bar Associations sued Bloomberg, Feinblatt and the city. They want the 2010 plan invalidated and the 1965 system reinstated. They are represented by David Siegal with Haynes and Boone.