At a recent Edward V. Sparer Public Interest Law Fellowship luncheon, two panelists addressed the challenges that still exist fifty years after the landmark Supreme Court decision in Gideon v. Wainwright, which established the constitutional right to counsel in criminal trials.
“Nearly 50 years after Gideon, New York State’s provision of legal services to poor defendants is still woefully inadequate” said Professor Stacy Caplow, member of the Sparer Fellowship Committee who chaired the lunch. Sparer Fellow Ari Rosmarin '13, with the Sparer Fellow Leadership Group, helped organize the luncheon and Professor Ursula Bentele, Director of the Capital Defender and Federal Habeas Clinic, was the moderator.
The first panelist, Brooklyn Law School Professor Emeritus William Hellerstein, began the discussion. He remarked that although Gideon established the right to appointed counsel there are significant deficiencies throughout New York State. “We are still talking about this subject today because society has never accepted that defense attorneys should be given the same respect as prosecutors. This stigma has inhibited constitutional provisions,” he said.
In 2006, former New York Chief Judge Judith Kaye created the New York State Commission on Indigent Defense, of which Prof. Hellerstein was the Chair. The Commission’s report called the state’s indigent defense system “severely dysfunctional” and “structurally incapable” of providing effective legal representation. In 2007, the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) and Schulte, Roth & Zabel filed Hurrell-Harring v. State of New York, a class-action lawsuit to force the State to assure competent legal representation for poor defendants. In May 2010, the New York State Court of Appeals permitted this systemic challenge based on the Sixth Amendment to proceed.
The second panelist, NYCLU Senior Staff Attorney Corey Stoughton, lead counsel on Hurrell-Harring v. State of New York, discussed how New York is failing its indigent defendants as well as the ongoing efforts to uphold the fundamental right to counsel. “The state has not done what it needs to do to provide adequate counsel to the poor,” she explained. “There is a fragmentation of defense services throughout the state. There are no standards to identify who needs defense or what defense actually means. There are significant funding deficits and a lack of adequate training for public defenders that have minimal contact with their clients, who are largely minorities.”
The root cause of the ongoing problem, Stoughton surmised, was the abdication by the state to local governments to provide adequate defense services. She gave an overview of Hurrell-Harring v. State of New York, stating that the challenges are enormous: “There was no legal theory or precedent for litigators bringing a Sixth Amendment case to state court,” she said. She maintained that the only way to ensure a real victory both in and out of the court was to “get a legislative and political commitment. We can’t think of litigation as a solitary effort. We have to think of it as a long-haul commitment.” While the case works its way through the courts, New York and its counties are struggling more intensely than ever to fund indigent defense services in a recession economy.
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For more information about this issue:
The New York Times: "Key New York Suit Calls Public Defender Programs Inadequate"
The New York Times: "Suit Over Legal Aid Advances in New York"
Read the decision in Hurrell-Harring v. State of New York.