ALBANY (AP) — A trial is needed to determine whether the state systemically provides inadequate staff and money for the constitutionally required defense of poor people charged with crimes, a state Supreme Court judge said.
Justice Eugene Devine refused on Monday to throw out the class action lawsuit brought by the New York Civil Liberties Union. He also rejected the NYCLU's request for a decision based on evidence already presented that claimed indigent defense by the state and several counties routinely fails defendants and violates their constitutional rights to lawyers.
NYCLU Executive Director Donna Lieberman on Tuesday called the decision "a tentative step toward justice."
The lawsuit was filed in 2007 on behalf of 20 defendants in Onondaga, Ontario, Schuyler, Suffolk and Washington counties.
In 2010, a divided New York Court of Appeals reinstated the lawsuit, rejecting a lower court's conclusion that the issue was simply poor performance by individual lawyers. The higher court noted that the complaint claimed 10 defendants had no lawyers at their arraignments and eight were sent straight to jail with bail set beyond what they could afford.
The judge said the testimony from attorneys serving in the defendant counties shows indigent criminal defendants consistently are arraigned without being afforded their right to counsel.
"The prevailing sentiment among the criminal practitioners that have testified in this matter is that such an occurrence does not necessarily result in the violation of a fundamental constitutional right," the judge wrote.
The state attorney general's office, which sought to dismiss the lawsuit, declined to comment on Tuesday. A spokeswoman said the trial is scheduled for March 17.