When You Can't Pay for a Lawyer


New York State Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman says the state needs to consider shouldering financial responsibility for the public defense system to ensure that every citizen gets “equal justice” regardless of his or her ability to pay.

“(Our) system of indigent defense is uneven to say the least,” Lippman said in this month's edition of CUNY-TV's “Criminal Justice Matters” program, marking the 50th anniversary of the landmark Supreme Court ruling in Gideon v. Wainright, which guaranteed all citizens facing criminal charges the right to counsel even if they were unable to afford it.

“We have to make the promise of Gideon real.”

In a freewheeling conversation with host Stephen Handelman, executive editor of The Crime Report, Lippman said increased funds were available to New York counties to help “upgrade” the public defense system—but they were far from sufficient to answer the need.

“Funding is a critical issue, and I question whether it should now be a state system responsibility,” Lippman, appointed to the top judicial post in 2009, said. “Counties are (financially) hard-pressed, especially now.”

A suit brought by civil liberties advocates charging that New York State's indigent defense is dysfunctional is currently under review. Although Lippman said he could not comment on the specifics of the suit, he agreed that the hope held out by the 1963 Supreme Court ruling still needed to be a focus of justice reform around the country.

“Some of the biggest advocates (for change) are prosecutors,” he said. “They understand.”

Lippman has already proved to be a forceful advocate of reform in areas such as the bail system, which he has charged is “broken” in New York State; and in requiring young lawyers to take pro bono work before they can be accepted by the New York Bar.

“We want law students to understand one of the core values of our profession is service to others, and if you want to call yourself a lawyer in New York, you're going to have to understand the spirit of what we do as lawyers and judges,” he said.

“Part of assuring justice is making sure that everyone does their part in serving people who can't necessarily help themselves.”

Also appearing on the program were Kumar Rao, an attorney with The Bronx Defenders, a leading New York public defense organization; and Damon Joe, a 19-year-old SUNY Delhi student who avoided a jail term and a permanent record thanks to a public defender who helped him prove his innocence.

This month's show will be repeated at the following times on CUNY Channel 75: Saturday, April 6 – at 8:00pm; and Sunday, April 7 10:00am. To download a copy of the show from YouTube please click HERE.

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