Last month, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled that a suit alleging that underfunded public defenders impaired a defendant’s right to counsel can proceed to trial.
The suit was brought by former Luzerne County Chief Public Defender, Al Flora. Citing “mounting caseloads and overwhelmed attorneys,” Flora requested that the county lift a hiring freeze and provide additional funding so that his office could properly represent the accused.
Subsequently, Flora was terminated and the case was dismissed when a county judge ruled that Flora lacked standing. The case was appealed to the PA Commonwealth Court, but The Honorable Mary Levitt affirmed the order of the trial court, finding that the issue was “better resolved in the political process, which includes the County’s budgetary processes.”
PA Supreme Court Justice Wrecht, writing for the majority, disagreed. The Court cited the US Supreme Court’s 1963 holding in Gideon v. Wainwright:
From the very beginning, our state and national constitutions and laws have laid great emphasis on procedural and substantive safeguards designed to assure fair trials before impartial tribunals in which every defendant stands equal before the law. This noble ideal cannot be realized if the poor man charged with crime has to face his accusers without a lawyer to assist him.
UNDERFUNDED PUBLIC DEFENDERS IMPAIR THE RIGHT TO COUNSEL
Justice Wrecht found that the mere existence of a public defender’s office and the assignment of attorneys is insufficient to satisfy Gideon. If the assigned attorneys cannot provide an adequate defense, the Sixth Amendment right to counsel “is broken.”
As Pennsylvania is the only state which leaves funding for indigent defense up to county governments, the Supreme Court’s recent ruling represents a new avenue to force better representation for poor criminal defendants. Criminally accused citizens of Pennsylvania now have standing to sue – even before their case is decided – in an effort to fight back against inadequate representation resulting from underfunded public defenders.