Pa. counties can now be sued for underfunding public defenders

    Pennsylvania Supreme Court. (Image via Google Maps)

    Pennsylvania Supreme Court. (Image via Google Maps)

    The Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled Tuesday in favor of criminal defendants. 

    Usually, inadequate representation lawsuits go like this: your lawyer does a bad job defending your case, you’re found guilty, and then you seek a new trial on the grounds of insufficient counsel. It’s a single response to a single instance of misrepresentation. 

    But what if a public defender system is so chronically underfunded and understaffed that criminal defendants know going into their case that they won’t be able to get a proper defense? Must they wait, individually, for their case to be tried and then hope for some sort of relief? 

    Not anymore. On Tuesday, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court reversed a trial court decision that said criminal defendants don’t have standing to sue before their case has been tried. 

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    In the ruling, the justices of the Supreme Court wrote that, “such sporadic, piecemeal [post-conviction] rulings are unlikely to compel public defender’s offices to make necessary changes, or to induce counties to provide the resources necessary to provide meaningful legal representation to indigent defendants.” 

    Counties can now be sued by defendants (and civil rights groups) for underfunding public defender offices.

    Luzerne County case goes to trial

    This ruling is the result of a 2012 lawsuit brought by the Luzerne County chief public defender. Al Flora, the chief at the time, sued the county for underfunding the office — not granting additional funding for more lawyers and refusing to replace attorneys who left.

    “According to the county, the only person who could sue [for additional funding] was the chief public defender,” said Mary Catherine Roper, of the Pennsylvania ACLU. Which she sees as a conflict of interest because, “then they could fire him.” 

    Which Luzerne County did, removing the one person with legal standing to sue. The ACLU and other civil rights attorneys tried to bring the case again with criminal defendants, arguing that they were in danger of receiving inadequate representation due to chronic underfunding. 

    The Commonwealth Court ruled that criminal defendants couldn’t sue in advance of insufficient representation. The case went all the way to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, which ruled in favor of the criminal defendants. 

    This will allow the Luzerne County case to go to trial, if the ACLU and others believe there are still grounds for the lawsuit. Since 2012, the county has nearly doubled funding for the Office of the Public Defender.  

    Opening the door

    But even if the Luzerne County case ends up being dropped, this has set a precedent that could leave other counties vulnerable to legal action. 

    In the ruling, the justices wrote, “the potential burden of such litigation cannot outweigh our Commonwealth’s obligation to comply meaningfully and completely with Gideon [v. Wainwright],” the federal lawsuit that guarantees legal representation to anyone who cannot afford it.

    Pennsylvania is the only state in the country that funds public defender offices on the county level, without any state-level funding provided. This leads to wide discrepancies of service depending on the county you’re in, according to Roper. 

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