New York State's highest court ruled that a broad class-action suit challenging the state's system of providing public defenders can move forward because there are enough signs that the system is failing poor people, the New York Times reports. The 4-to-3 ruling by the State Court of Appeals came in a case that civil liberties lawyers said could be a model for similar challenges across the country. It set the stage for a sweeping battle in the courts and perhaps the legislature.
Written by the state's chief judge, Jonathan Lippman, the ruling said the suit, which is opposed by the state, could proceed because it posed fundamental questions about the fairness of the criminal justice system. “Wrongful conviction, the ultimate sign of a criminal justice system's breakdown and failure, has been documented in too many cases,” the decision said. The ruling came after decades of reports and findings by state commissions that New York's locally financed system for meeting the constitutional requirement to provide lawyers for indigent defendants, which varies greatly by county, is inadequate, with inattentive, unavailable, poorly trained, and poorly supervised lawyers handling huge caseloads. In many counties, the ruling noted, poor defendants are routinely arraigned without lawyers at all during initial appearances, where bail is set and many defendants are sent to jail. Improvements sought by civil liberties lawyers could cost the state hundreds of millions of dollars.