NY Finally Agrees to Fulfill its Constitutional Duty to Provide Adequate Public Defense
As of today, New Yorkers will be ensured access to a right that all people in the U.S. are entitled to.
Which right is that?
We all have the “right to counsel,” which in part means that if you are charged with a serious crime but cannot afford an attorney, the government must provide you with a defense attorney free of charge.*
The basic idea here is that if we as a society believe a person should be locked up in jail, that person deserves a full and adequate defense before we take such a serious action. Because people can’t adequately represent themselves as well as a trained lawyer can, we must ensure that everyone has access to a lawyer.
That’s what the Supreme Court said over 50 years ago, when it ruled that the “right to counsel” in the Constitution requires the government to ensure that people are adequately defended before they are put in jail.1Gideon v. Wainwright, 372 U.S. 335 (1963)
The ruling requires state governments to spend plenty of money and to effectively run “public defender” programs. It’s certainly not an easy thing to do, especially in an era of huge budget cuts. But a lack of funds is not a good excuse for denying people basic rights.
Has New York not been upholding this right?
Not so much. New York State has apparently not been providing enough lawyers to adequately defend poor people charged with serious crimes. While these defendants2a person who is being prosecuted or sued may have been assigned a lawyer, these lawyers simply had too many cases and not enough time to handle them all to the point where the U.S. Department of Justice said they were basically a “lawyer in name only.”
About 7 years ago, a group of these low-income defendants sued the NY state government to force it to provide more adequate resources. And a few weeks ago, the U.S. Department of Justice formally weighed in on the case.
OK, so what happened today?
The New York State government, acting through its governor, Andrew Cuomo, agreed today to settle the lawsuit, and to fulfill its duty to provide effective legal defense for all people charged with a serious crime, but who cannot afford an attorney.
Among other things, the state agreed to:
“hire sufficient lawyers, investigators and support staff to ensure that all poor criminal defendants have lawyers with the time and support necessary to vigorously represent the defendant”
Billed as a historic victory for the civil rights of all Americans, the agreement is likely to encourage further efforts to ensure other states are fulfilling their Constitutional obligation.
Will your state be next?
Feature photo: Gov Cuomo speaks at National Guard. creative commons licensed (BY-ND) flickr photo by New York National Guard: http://flickr.com/photos/nyng/12463525423