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A Big Week for Improving Public Defense in the States

Three victories in court this week, and each represent important steps forward in ongoing national efforts to strengthen the role of the courts, secure the right to counsel, and hold government accountable to the rule of law. Read more…

  • David S. Udell
May 7, 2010

It’s a big week for justice.

Three victories in court this week represent important steps forward in ongoing national efforts to strengthen the role of the courts, secure the right to counsel, and hold government accountable to the rule of law: Hurrell-Harring v. State of New York, Duncan v. State of Michigan, and City of NY v. Maul.  Through a series of amicus briefs, the Brennan Center is proud to have played a role in each.

Hurrell-Harring v. State of New York is a landmark decision on the right to counsel, just issued by the New York Court of Appeals. In this suit, brought by the New York Civil Liberties Union and the law firm Schulte Roth & Zabel, the plaintiffs (individuals charged with crimes) argue that systemic deficiencies in how five New York counties provide indigent defense services mean that poor people are regularly denied effective representation in criminal proceedings.

The State had sought to have the lawsuit dismissed, arguing that the individuals charged with crimes should not be permitted to bring an affirmative lawsuit to end the deficiencies, but instead should wait for the legislature to improve the system, or, alternatively, bring post-conviction appeals in their own individual cases. The Brennan Center, in partnership with Richards Kibbe & Orbe LLP, filed an amicus brief on behalf of former prosecutors arguing that the case should be allowed to proceed. The brief emphasized that the deficiencies alleged by the plaintiffs prevent prosecutors from being effective in their jobs and undermine the integrity of New York’s entire criminal justice system.   

Writing for the majority, Chief Judge Lippman rejected the State’s arguments and ruled that the case could go forward. The Court concluded that the plaintiffs had alleged facts sufficient to state a claim for the violation of their Sixth Amendment right to counsel, as guaranteed under Gideon v. Wainwright. Critically, the Complaint had alleged both that criminal defendants regularly lack representation during critical stages of their criminal cases, and that even when counsel is appointed, the counsel is so non-responsive and disengaged from cases as to leave defendants effectively without representation at all. The Court also acknowledged the arguments in the Brennan Center brief, explaining that “[t]his action properly understood, as it has been by distinguished members of the prosecution and defense bars alike, does not threaten but endeavors to preserve our means of criminal adjudication from the inevitably corrosive effects and unjust consequences of an unfair adversary process.” This case will now proceed in the trial court.

Also from the New York Court of Appeals this week is City of New York v. Maul. In Maul, the majority held that a trial court correctly authorized a class action to proceed on behalf of developmentally disabled children and young adults, represented by the law firm, Patterson Belknap Webb & Tyler LLP, against state agencies responsible for determining appropriate placements in light of the plaintiffs’ disabilities. In giving a voice to a class of plaintiffs seeking to compel corrective action by the agencies, the decision secures a role for the courts in holding state executive agencies accountable to the rule of law. In an amicus brief that the Brennan Center helped to shape, the Center joined a statewide coalition of organizations urging the Court to recognize the value of the class action device as an essential tool for confronting government inaction that violates individuals’ statutory rights.

And, finally, last Friday, Michigan’s highest court ruled that another right to counsel suit, Duncan v. Michigan, could proceed. This suit, brought by the American Civil Liberties Union, the ACLU of Michigan, and the law firm Cravath Swaine & Moore, on behalf of indigent individuals accused of crimes in three Michigan counties, argued that Michigan’s provision of indigent defense services is constitutionally inadequate. In a succinct order, the Court declared that it is too early to dismiss a case in which plaintiffs allege that failures in the delivery of indigent defense services threaten denial of their constitutional right to counsel. This case, too, will now go forward in the lower court.

The Brennan Center submitted an amicus brief in Duncan, along with NAACP LDF, the Constitution Project, and the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. The Brennan Center was also involved early on in helping investigate the facts and construct the complaint that became the Duncan lawsuit. Additionally, the Brennan Center Strategic Fund (our 501C4 affiliate), has been performing an ongoing role in helping to guide the work of the Michigan Campaign for Justice in advancing a comprehensive reform effort in Michigan. 

Together, these cases represent an important step toward ensuring equal justice and affirming courts’ vital role in protecting constitutional rights.