September 29, 2016
Pennsylvania’s highest court will allow criminal defendants to sue a county as a way to prove a public defender’s office isn’t adequately funded to provide the constitutional right to an attorney, a victory for civil rights lawyers.
The state Supreme Court’s unanimous ruling late Wednesday overturned an appellate court decision.
Mary Catherine Roper, the deputy legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, said Thursday that, while the ruling is a victory, it is not a final victory for the plaintiffs — two criminal defendants — in the lawsuit against Luzerne County in northeastern Pennsylvania.
Those plaintiffs, Adam Kuren and Steven Allabaugh, have since been convicted or pleaded guilty.
But it is new avenue to force better representation for poor criminal defendants in Pennsylvania, the only state that leaves funding for the defense of indigent defendants entirely to county governments, according to the ACLU.
The 61-page ruling means that criminal defendants have standing to sue before their case is decided in an effort force counties to adequately fund the public defender’s office, Roper said.
“The people who are affected by these underfunded public defender’s offices all across Pennsylvania can go to court to say, ‘You have set up a system that is violating my rights,’ and that is very important. Without someone who can go into court, you can’t fix it,” she said.
Elliot Howsie, public defender for Allegheny County, said in a statement that as his office reorganized and increased staffing, it got an increase in funding from the county.
The operating budget for the Public Defender’s Office jumped from $7.6 million in 2012 to $9.05 million in 2013. The current year’s budget is $9.57 million.
“Our current level of resources allows us to provide competent and effective legal counsel to our clients and a vigorous defense for those individuals represented by the office,” he said. “That being said, we would always welcome additional state resources to assist with client representation at every stage of the process.”
The ACLU originally filed a lawsuit in 2012 on behalf of the chief public defender in Luzerne County, Al Flora.
Luzerne County’s manager, C. David Pedri, did not immediately return a call seeking comment Thursday. In oral arguments in April, a lawyer for Luzerne County said the county had hired five more full-time public defenders and had continued to increase funding for the office.