A class-action suit being argued next week in New York's highest court will test a national strategy by civil liberties groups to challenge what they say are failed public defender programs in many states, the New York Times reports. Because about 80 percent of felony defendants in large states are too poor to hire their own lawyers, the Times says the case has the potential to alter the shape of the criminal justice system.
The New York Civil Liberties Union lawsuit challenges a patchwork system described by decades of studies and commissions as dysfunctional, underfinanced and in crisis, with often poorly trained and poorly supervised lawyers handling huge caseloads. It says indigent clients have been failed by their appointed lawyers all around the state. The state is fighting the case, arguing that if it is allowed to proceed – and a court uses the case to order the state to upgrade the public defender system – it would be a judicial invasion of the legislature and governor’s authority. Improvements could cost hundreds of millions of dollars.