Public Defenders

Pennsylvania supremes allow suit alleging inadequate funding for public defender office

  • Print.

Indigent criminal defendants may sue for alleged inadequate funding in a Pennsylvania public defender’s office, the state supreme court has ruled.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled (PDF) on Wednesday in the suit against Luzerne County, report the Citizens’ Voice, the Associated Press and the Sixth Amendment Center. The ABA had filed an amicus brief (PDF) in the case urging the court to recognize the prospective claim for denial of counsel.

The criminal defendants who filed the class action had alleged the lack of adequate funding impaired the right to counsel under the Sixth and 14th amendments, as well as the Pennsylvania Constitution. At issue was whether criminal defendants could seek prospective relief and an injunction, without the need to wait for conviction and sentencing.

The Supreme Court said the cause of action is allowed, as long as the class can demonstrate “the likelihood of substantial and immediate irreparable injury, and the inadequacy of remedies at law.”

The American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania represented the criminal defendants who sued. The ACLU originally filed the suit on behalf of Luzerne County Public Defender Al Flora, who was subsequently fired.

ACLU of Pennsylvania deputy legal director Mary Catherine Roper told the Morning Call that the decision gives criminal defendants the standing to sue.

“What it means is that in counties all across Pennsylvania there is someone who can sue,” 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.”

Give us feedback, share a story tip or update, or report an error.