Suit Over Public-Defender Budget Crisis Revived

     PHILADELPHIA (CN) — In a first-of-its-kind ruling, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court cleared the way for a county to face charges that it violates civil rights by underfunding its public defender’s office to the brink of disaster.
     Luzerne County’s chief public defender at the time, Al Flora, brought the underlying class action in 2012, joined by certain individuals who qualified for his office’s services in pending criminal proceedings.
     Pennsylvania is the only state in the nation that requires counties to provide their own public-defender funding, as opposed to using statewide funding — a factor alleged to have contributed to Luzerne County’s funding crisis.
     Luzerne’s Office of the Public Defender fired Flora on the road to trial. Adam Kuren and Steven Allabaugh, both indigent and facing criminal charges in Luzerne County, have carried the case since then. Though their case was dismissed, and that dismissal affirmed, the commonwealth’s highest court revived the dispute Wednesday.
     “The right to counsel is the lifeblood of our system of criminal justice, and nothing in our legal tradition or precedents requires a person seeking to vindicate that right to wait until he or she has been convicted and sentenced,” Justice David Wecht wrote for the mostly unanimous court. “To so hold would undermine the essentiality of the right during the pretrial process. It would render irrelevant all deprivations of the right at the earliest stages of a criminal process so long as they do not clearly affect the substantive outcome of a trial. If the right to counsel is to mean what the Supreme Court has consistently said it means, this view cannot prevail. A person has the same right to counsel at a preliminary hearing as he or she does at a sentencing hearing. It would confound logic to hold that the person can only seek redress for the latter stages of the criminal process.”
     The 61-page ruling quotes six ways in which the county failed to provide adequate “legal representation” because of insufficient funding.
     They say Luzerne cannot afford to keep public defenders apprised of developing law or fund continuing legal education training, which is mandatory.
     “Trial attorneys, untrained in appellate practice, were required to appeal their own cases, which often resulted in missed deadlines, waived issues, and unpersuasive arguments,” the ruling says.
     Public defenders allegedly regularly miss preliminary arraignments, resulting “in clients receiving higher bail orders than necessary, serving prolonged and unnecessary pretrial incarceration, and being read a list of charges that the clients did not understand.”
     Insufficient personnel and time likewise cause public defenders to miss filing deadlines, and miss potentially meritorious defenses from slapdash reviews of case materials, according to the complaint. Compounding this, mounting caseloads allegedly force public defenders to miss hearings or seek postponements.
     “The delays increased the anguish and anxiety attending those facing criminal charges,” Wecht wrote, summarizing the allegations. “More importantly, the delays unnecessarily extended pretrial incarceration. The attorneys’ time was so taxed by their caseload, appellants claimed, that, even when the attorneys were available, they were often unprepared and unable to provide meaningful advice. The same time constraints precluded the attorneys from investigating the facts and defenses of each case, and rendered them incapable of advising clients regarding constitutional rights and the effects that flow from decisions such as whether to plead guilty or whether to testify at trial.”
     With little time to spend with clients, public defenders are allegedly quick to insist “upon plea bargains that were unfavorable to the defendant or unsupported by law or fact.”
     Rather than jail visits, moreover, the clients say they are forced to accept “video-conferences, which lacked the confidentiality necessary to form and maintain attorney-client relationships.”
     Wecht said the allegations must be accepted as true at this stage of proceedings, and that this is enough to advance the case.
     “We have no doubt that Luzerne County is not alone in facing budgetary limitations, and that the OPD is not the only public defender’s office that faces financial constraints,” Wecht wrote. “It is fair to say that both entities are not outliers in Pennsylvania. We recognize that our decision could prompt similar lawsuits in many of Pennsylvania’s sixty-seven counties. However, the potential burden of such litigation cannot outweigh our commonwealth’s obligation to comply meaningfully and completely with Gideon.”
     A 1963 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Gideon v. Wainwright was the seminal case that extended the bedrock right to a defense to state courts.
     “We recognize for the first time in Pennsylvania a prospective cause of action enabling indigent criminal defendants to prove that the level of funding provided by a county to operate a public defender’s office has left that office incapable of complying with Gideon, creating the likelihood of a systematic, widespread constructive denial of counsel in contravention of the Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution,” Wecht wrote. “We further hold that Appellants have sufficiently averred facts to state a claim upon which injunctive relief can be granted.”
     Four members of the court joined Wecht’s opinion in full, and Justice Max Baer filed a concurring opinion.
     The court’s seventh member, Justice Sallie Updyke Mundy, did not participate in the ruling, as she did not join until July 2016, three months after oral argument of this case.

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