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Lawyer Blasts New York System of|’Arraigning Attorneys’ as Unconstitutional

SYRACUSE, N.Y. (CN) - An attorney claims that New York and Onondaga County violate the constitutional rights of indigent defendants by assigning them "arraigning attorneys" in "cafeteria style," and "only for purposes of expeditiously dispensing with the arraignment." And if the client is released, the county may bar the attorney from continuing to represent him, Jason Zeigler says in his federal complaint.

Zeigler sued the state and country individually and in his capacity as civil court-appointed attorney for indigent citizens in the County of Onondaga. He also sued The Office of Court Administration of the Unified Court System, and the Hon, James Tormey, individually and in his official capacity as District Administrative Judge of the Fifth Judicial District.

Zeigler says the New York Legislature "established the rate at which assigned attorneys are to be compensated at $60 per hour for misdemeanors and $75 per hour for felonies and family court assignments," but Onondaga County failed to budget enough money for it.

So the defendants "implemented a plan to inhibit the practice of law and deny defendant's rights," Zeigler says.

He claims that in Syracuse City Court, Judge Tormey instituted a program of "arraigning attorneys" that serve no other purpose than "assuring that arraignments proceed rapidly and without delay."

The "arraigning attorneys" are provided at arraignment by defendant Onondaga County and without assignment or order from the presiding judge. They accept clients 'cafeteria style' as the cases are presented to them," according to the complaint.

"Arraigning attorneys are overly burdened with temporary clients and work under a burdensome schedule such that, at best, their level of representation falls beneath that contemplated by the Sixth Amendment and is often altogether meaningless.

"An arraigning attorney learns of his client shortly before the arraignment itself. He or she may only meet with this new client for a few minutes prior to appearing in court and, very frequently, even that is impossible. Frequently, the arraigning attorney doesn't see his client until he is actually in Court and before the bench. Adjournments, although contemplated under New York State law, are never utilized to provide an opportunity for the defendant to meet with counsel because to do so would defeat the purpose of expediting the arraignment."

In Onondaga County Court, if the client is incarcerated he immediately receives an attorney, but if the client is "released or makes bail, as occurs in the vast majority of cases, the assigned attorney is forbidden from doing any legal work for his client until such time as the County of Onondaga deems the individual to be genuinely indigent," Zeigler says in his complaint.

He says it is common for the presiding judge to be "ignorant of the financial standards applied by the non-party Onondaga County and never is an inquiry made or a proper hearing had as to the financial circumstances of the defendant." There is "not even the pretense of due process" as the criminal defendant is never given notice of the nature of the proceedings or an opportunity to be heard, Zeigler says.

And the arraigning attorneys are paid less than the rate authorized by the state, Zeigler says.

He claims criminal defendants are unlikely to receive working counsel before the grand jury process because of this arrangement, and "therefore forfeit their right to testify or even simply to be advised as to their legal options."

Zeigler says his representation of clients is so limited and suppressed by these policies that it violates the Sixth Amendment.

Zeigler seeks declaratory judgment that the process violates his rights, and the First, Sixth, and 14th Amendment rights of his clients. He is represented by Jeffrey Parry.

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