PA Supreme Court says criminal defendants can sue underfunded public defender’s offices

PA Supreme Court says criminal defendants can sue underfunded public defender’s offices

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has taken the bold step of finding a new cause of action that would allow indigent criminal defendants to prospectively sue a county for failing to adequately fund and operate a public defender’s office.

The right to the assistance of competent counsel in criminal prosecutions is guaranteed by the Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution and the seminal case of Gideon v. Wainwright, 372 U.S. 335 (1963). However, that right sometimes comes into conflict with the financial and logistical realities of government. The result of this conflict is often an overburdened public defender’s office that cannot fulfill its constitutional mandate.

According to a class action complaint filed in Pennsylvania, that has been the case in Luzerne County. Indeed, at the trial level, the court said that “[t]o describe the state of affairs in the Office of the Public Defender as approaching crisis state is not an exaggeration.”

Prior to the decision in this case, the only thing short-changed criminal defendants could do when facing inadequate representation from the public defender’s office was to file a post-conviction petition for ineffective assistance of counsel. In Pennsylvania, however, indigent defendants receiving constitutionally deficient representation due to funding problems need no longer wait until the sub-par representation costs them a fair defense.

They can now file a claim requesting injunctive relief, forcing the county to provide adequate funding for the public defender’s office.

“We recognize for the first time in Pennsylvania a prospective cause of action enabling indigent criminal defendants to prove that the level of funding provided by a county to operate a public defender’s office has left that office incapable of complying with Gideon, creating the likelihood of systematic, widespread constructive denial of counsel in contravention of the Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution,” said the court. “We further hold that Appellants have sufficiently averred facts to state a claim upon which injunctive relief can be granted.”

In Luzerne County, Pennsylvania, at least, it seems that help is on the way to the overworked and under-appreciated Public Defenders Office.

See: Kuren v. Luzerne County of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, Supreme Court of Pennsylvania, Case Nos. 57 MAP 2015 and 58 MAP 2015 (Argued April 6, 2016).

This article originally appeared in Prison Legal News on August 22, 2017.