Indigent Defense Class Action in New York State to Proceed

The New York Times reports:

New York’s highest court ruled Thursday 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 4-to-3 ruling by the State Court of Appeals came in a closely watched suit that civil liberties lawyers said could be a model for similar challenges across the country. It also set the stage for a sweeping battle in the courts and perhaps the Legislature.

The ruling was something of a milestone 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.

The way is now cleared for a trial or a settlement by New York, as has been the result in several other states that have faced such challenges. There have been similar class-action challenges over public defense systems in states like Connecticut, Indiana, Minnesota and Montana that have ended with inconsistent decisions and settlements. Last month, the Michigan Supreme Court permitted a similar challenge to proceed.

Regarding that Michigan case, which has been closely watched by civil liberties and indigent defense advocates throughout the country, 4/30/10 Associated Press coverage actually suggests that there is some uncertainty about whether the case will ultimately go forward as a class action.

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