Suit by Public Defenders Over Restricted Client Access Revived

(CN) – The Second Circuit on Friday revived a lawsuit by public defenders in Brooklyn over restricted access to their federally imprisoned clients.

Visitation with inmates at the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn first took a hit in early 2019 when prison was locked down after a fire caused power outages. Other incidents around that time also led to limited access, including a partial government shutdown, a bomb threat and a confrontation in the center’s lobby.

As alleged in a federal complaint by the Federal Defenders of New York, these restrictions violated the Administrative Procedure Act and the inmates’ right to counsel under the Sixth Amendment.

 

The Second Circuit’s Thurgood Marshall U.S. Courthouse at 40 Centre Street in New York City. (Photo via Wikipedia Commons)

A federal judge with the Eastern New York had dismissed the lawsuit for lack of standing, but a three-judge panel of the Second Circuit vacated the decision Friday.

 

“We conclude that the District Court erred in dismissing the Federal Defenders’ APA claim by failing to consider applicable BOP regulations in its zone-of-interests analysis,” the panel wrote, with no one judge taking the lead on the opinion.

The circuit also revived the Sixth Amendment claim and ordered the District Court to consider appointing a mediator “to ensure that the Federal Defenders have meaningful, continuous access to their clients either in person or by remote access pending adjudication of these claims.”

The panel noted that most of the Brooklyn facility’s 1,600 inmates are “pretrial detainees who have not been convicted of a crime.”

Usually the nonprofit Federal Defenders group has access to its Brooklyn clients seven days a week between 8 a.m. and 8 p.m.

“After hearing reports that the power outages had deprived many detainees of heating, electricity, hot water, phones, medical care, and other basic services, the Defenders repeatedly requested information from BOP officials on the conditions at the MDC and sought to know the reasons that the facility cancelled visitation,” the judges wrote.

The District Court denied the defenders’ request for an injunction, stating that their APA and Sixth Amendment claims failed because they didn’t pass the “zone of interests” test.

That doctrine holds that “a plaintiff has no cause of action if his interests lie outside the zone of interests arguably protected or regulated by the law that the plaintiff seeks to invoke,” according to Friday’s ruling.

While the appeals court found that the Sixth Amendment rights belong to the accused, not to their lawyers, it determined that the Federal Defenders passed what is known as the zone-of-interest test because their interest in client access “mirror the interests that these BOP regulations seek to protect, namely: the strong interests of MDC inmates, especially pretrial detainees whose cases have not been adjudicated, in having adequate access to legal counsel.”

Both parties considered mediating the dispute during oral arguments and the judges suggested that they follow through with the idea.

“Mediation would enhance the prospect that this litigation can be resolved without a judicial ruling on the novel constitutional issues that it raises,” they wrote.

The judges also cited the Covid-19 outbreak as reason to pursue “real-time, comprehensive solutions, reached in cooperative institutional discussions.”

The panel was made up of U.S. Circuit Judges John Walker Jr., a George H.W. Bush appointee, Barrington Parker, a George W. Bush appointee, and Susan Carney, a Barack Obama appointee.

Jenna Dabbs with the law firm Kaplan, Hecker and Fink represented the Federal Defenders. Sean Greene of the Eastern District U.S. Attorney’s Office argued for the Bureau of Prisons. Neither Dabbs nor the Eastern District immediately responded to requests for comment made after business hours Friday.

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