The Pennsylvania Supreme Court, in a precedent-setting ruling, found Friday that county governments have a constitutional responsibility to provide counsel to poor criminal defendants and ensure that their defense is adequately funded.
The ruling came in a lawsuit by the former head of the Office of the Public Defender in Luzerne County and several criminal defendants, who alleged that funding cuts by the county commissioners had severely hampered the ability of the office to provide adequate representation in criminal cases.
The funding shortages were so severe at one point that the Public Defender's Office declined to represent new clients facing minor charges, or those who were not already incarcerated. Under the 1963 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Gideon v. Wainwright, criminal defendants are entitled to be represented by government-funded defense counsel if they cannot afford their own lawyer.
"No other guarantee in the Bill of Rights that affects the criminal justice system parallels the right to counsel in its universality," Justice David N. Wecht wrote in the 5-0 decision. (Two justices did not participate.) "The right to counsel plays a significant role in every case."
Typically, criminal defendants who assert that they have been represented by ineffective counsel do so after a conviction and on a case-by-case basis. Friday's decision permits lawsuits alleging inadequate criminal defense when a local government fails to adequately fund its public defender's office, effectively creating a new cause of action.
The ruling did not provide financial guidelines to local governments. But it said public defender's offices should be able to engage in timely consultation with clients, adequately investigate matters, and take other steps to test the prosecution's case.
The court, ruling in Kuren et al. v. Luzerne County, acknowledged that its decision might unleash additional lawsuits against public defender's offices in other counties but said that it had no choice under the Sixth Amendment's guarantee of a right to effective counsel in criminal proceedings.
"We have no doubt that Luzerne County is not alone in facing budgetary limitations and that the OPD [Office of Public Defender] is not the only public defender's office that faces financial constraints," the court said in its 61-page opinion. "We recognize that our decision could prompt similar lawsuits in many of Pennsylvania's 67 counties. However, the potential burden of such litigation cannot outweigh the commonwealth's obligation to comply meaningfully and completely with Gideon."
The plaintiffs were represented by the American Civil Liberties Union, and a broad coalition of legal groups filed briefs in support of the lawsuit, including the American Bar Association, the Pennsylvania Innocence Project, and the Department of Justice.
"Lawyers from across the commonwealth volunteered to make a difference in this case," said Philip Gelso, president of the Pennsylvania Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, which also filed a brief on behalf of the plaintiffs.
The case was filed by the former head of the Luzerne County Public Defender's Office, Al Flora, and several defendants alleging that chronic underfunding had seriously hampered the ability of the office to provide representation. The 10 full- and 11 part-time lawyers and three investigators in the office typically handle 4,000 new cases a year, and about half of those are felonies.
The plaintiffs asserted that staff shortages were so severe that lawyers typically had little time to meet with their clients at critical junctures in cases. In addition, investigative and other support staff were in short supply. Many of the lawyers who worked for the office did not have their own desks or telephones, and there was insufficient office space to conduct private meetings with clients.
By contrast, the District Attorney's Office had 26 lawyers and 10 detectives, according to the decision.
The staff shortages at the Office of the Public Defender meant that lawyers with little experience in appellate law handled critical appeals in criminal cases. In its opinion, the Supreme Court cited arguments that staff shortages in public defender's offices cause defense lawyers to negotiate disadvantageous plea bargains for their clients to reduce caseloads.
The decision overturned an opinion by Commonwealth Court finding that the plaintiffs lacked standing and that the issues could be addressed through the annual budgetary process. It sent the case back to the trial court for further proceedings to resolve the matter in accordance with the principles laid out in its opinion.