PHILADELPHIA - In a decision critical to the ability of poor defendants to receive an effective legal defense, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled yesterday that public defender clients have the right to sue counties to force them to provide adequate funding to their public defender’s offices.
The decision reverses the Commonwealth Court’s opinion in Kuren v. Luzerne County, in which clients of the Luzerne County Office of the Public Defender (OPD) argued that the chronically underfunded and understaffed office was not providing an adequate defense. If the lower court’s ruling had been upheld, poor defendants in Pennsylvania would have been left with no way to protect their constitutional right to counsel.
“The right to an attorney, even if you are poor, is a bedrock of our justice system,” said Reggie Shuford, executive director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania. “Being charged with a crime can have lifelong consequences. Those consequences are multiplied for poor people, who typically rely on underfunded, overworked public defenders to protect their rights. The court’s decision is an important and welcome reaffirmation of these well-established principles.”
In 1963, the United States Supreme Court held in Gideon v. Wainwright that a person facing jail time who cannot afford an attorney is entitled to an "effective" and "adequate" defense paid for by the state. In Pennsylvania, the state has delegated that duty to county governments, but without providing any funding for the services. As a result, many cash-strapped county governments have cut public defender budgets to the bone.
The case started as Flora v. Luzerne County in April 2012, when the ACLU-PA and Dechert LLP filed suit on behalf of Al Flora, Jr., who was then the chief public defender of Luzerne County, and indigent criminal defendants whom the overloaded OPD could not represent. In June 2012, a Common Pleas judge ordered the county to allow Flora to hire more lawyers as a first step and to come up with a plan to deal with the “crisis” in the OPD.
Instead of giving the OPD more resources, Luzerne County fired Al Flora and hired a new chief public defender, who tried to stop the case from moving forward. When the ACLU continued the suit on behalf of the indigent clients who rely on the OPD office, the county argued that criminal defendants are not allowed to file suit to protect their right to adequate representation. The trial court agreed and dismissed the claims. A year later, the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court issued a ruling affirming that the OPD’s clients could not bring suit to demand adequate funding for the OPD. In June 2015, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court agreed to hear the case to decide whether public defender clients may bring suit to prevent the violation of their right to counsel.
Because of the importance of the case, the U.S. Department of Justice as well as numerous national legal organizations, including the American Bar Association and the Innocence Project, filed friend-of-the-court briefs in support of the plaintiffs.
The case name was changed to Kuren v. Luzerne County to reflect the fact that Al Flora is no longer a plaintiff.
The plaintiffs are represented by Vernon Francis, Michelle Yeary, Catherine Wigglesworth, and Katherine Unger Davis of Dechert LLP in Philadelphia; David Rudovsky of Kairys, Rudovsky, Messing & Feinberg, LLP in Philadelphia; Kimberly D. Borland of Borland & Borland, LLP in Wilkes Barre; and Witold Walczak, Mary Catherine Roper, and Molly Tack-Hooper of the ACLU of Pennsylvania.
More information about the case can be found at: aclupa.org/kuren.