On 50th Anniversary, Fulfill Gideon's Promise

New York must meet the constitutional mandate that everyone has a right to a competent lawyer when accused of a crime, say legal advocates and leaders of the Black, Puerto Rican, Hispanic and Asian Caucus.

ALBANY, NY (03/18/2013)(readMedia)-- Representatives of the New York State Bar Association, The Legal Aid Society of New York City, The Innocence Project, 5Boro Defenders, New York Civil Liberties Union, New York State Defenders Association, Bronx Defenders, and Brooklyn Defender Services join the Caucus's call for Governor Cuomo to lead reform of state's public defense system on 50th anniversary of landmark Supreme Court ruling in Gideon v. Wainwright.

Albany, NY -- Legal advocates and leaders of the legislature's Black, Puerto Rican, Hispanic and Asian Caucus today called upon Governor Andrew Cuomo to lead a reform effort that will establish a fair, efficient and just public defense system.

The appeal was made at a news conference on the 50th anniversary of Gideon v. Wainwright, the unanimous Supreme Court ruling that held the Constitution guarantees criminal defendants the right to a lawyer. New York's Court of Appeals has ruled that counsel provided to indigent defendants must be "meaningful and effective."

The speakers said New York's public defense system routinely fails to provide indigent defendants the quality and rigor of legal representation that is required by the Constitution.

The problem is well documented: A 2006 report by the Kaye Commission concluded that "the indigent defense system in New York State is both severely dysfunctional and structurally incapable of providing each poor defendant with the effective legal representation . . . guaranteed by the Constitution of the United States and the law of the State of New York."

Little has changed since 2006, the speakers asserted.

The problems with the public defense system persist in counties throughout the state: attorneys with many hundreds of active cases; with little or no client contact; and with no capacity to conduct investigations or interview witnesses.

"Fidelity to Gideon and the cases that followed requires adequate funding for indigent defense," said Seymour James, President of the New York State Bar Association and Attorney-in-Charge of the Criminal Practice at The Legal Aid Society in New York City. "Without sufficient resources for indigent defense counsel, the justice system cannot work effectively." The State Bar's membership includes not only criminal defense lawyers, but prosecutors and judges, and lawyers in civil practice. "A half-century after Gideon," James added, "it is time to not just renew the promise of justice for all, but to make it a reality."

"Reform of New York's public defense system is a matter of racial and social justice," said Assemblyman, and Caucus Chair, Karim Camara by phone. "African Americans and Latinos are more than five times as likely as whites to need appointed counsel. It is poor people and people of color who are most directly harmed by the lack of effective counsel."

The Caucus was also represented at the news conference by Senator Ruth Hassell-Thompson and Assemblyman Jeffrion Aubry, the recently appointed Assembly Speaker Pro Tempore.

"Across America we are failing the promise of Gideon," said Senator Hassell-Thompson. "We are failing the Constitution. And we are failing the most vulnerable in our society – it is they who are most often haled into court, accused of a crime. In New York we have taken major steps downstate with case loads and stabilizing funding streams. Upstate, we have only started to deal with case load and pilot programs to ensure representation at arraignment. Although we have taken our first steps, we have miles to go."

"Absent competent legal counsel, the presumption of innocence doesn't mean much," said Assemblyman Aubry. "When that principle is forgotten, the innocent are in grave danger. And we've forgotten that principle."

The New York Civil Liberties Union has brought a class-action lawsuit that claims the state's public defense legal services fail to meet minimum constitutional standards. "Every day, in courtrooms throughout the state, New Yorkers are denied justice simply because they are poor. Justice should not depend on your ZIP code or the size of your wallet," said New York Civil Liberties Union Executive Director Donna Lieberman.

The "Gideon ruling is a defining moment in our commitment to the constitutional principles of liberty and freedom – and due process – in the context of law enforcement," said Innocence Project Co-Director Barry Scheck, "... a constitutional high-water mark, one that we seem unable to meet in the ordinary course of practice. But when we fail to provide competent, effective counsel, the foreseeable, predictable consequence is that the innocent are convicted, the guilty are not apprehended, and the public safety is undermined."

"I have directed the Public Defense Backup Center since 1981, when the Legislature first declared the existence of broad deficiencies in the public defense system," said Jonathan E. Gradess, Executive Director of the New York State Defenders Association. "And I have seen broad deficiencies grow; my office, which is state-funded to improve the quality of public defense services statewide, can't provide sufficient services to meet the great need. We ask the Governor to lead the way to systemic reform."

Amanda Jack, member of 5Boro Defenders and Trial Attorney, Brooklyn Defender Services said "The next generation of defenders is ready to work with the Governor to bring about the conditions that will allow New York to become, once again, the leader in providing public defense services!"

Justine Olderman, Managing Attorney with the Bronx Defenders, spoke to what a reformed public defense system would look like: "Gideon holds the promise that everyone ? rich or poor ? will have access to justice. We have a long way to go, but there are innovative and promising developments happening in public defender offices. The Bronx Defenders' innovative model of holistic defense, which provides every client access to community based legal and social service resources, exemplifies what public defense could be."