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Court Rules Counties Can Be Sued to Force Adequate Legal Defense

Advocates say that inadequate legal defense is the leading cause of wrongful convictions. (Erika Wittlieb/Pixabay)
Advocates say that inadequate legal defense is the leading cause of wrongful convictions. (Erika Wittlieb/Pixabay)
September 30, 2016

PHILADELPHIA – The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has ruled that people who use a public defender can sue if a county fails to adequately fund its public defenders' office. The decision overturns lower court rulings that had said criminal defendants aren't allowed to file lawsuits to protect their right to adequate legal representation.

Mary Catherine Roper, legal director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania, pointed out that inadequate defense is the leading cause of wrongful convictions.

"Inadequate representation, when you're talking about public defenders, is usually not a matter of a bad lawyer, it's a matter of a hopelessly overworked lawyer," she said.

The U.S. Justice Department, American Bar Association, and the Innocence Project filed briefs on behalf of the plaintiffs, who were represented by the ACLU, the law firm Dechert LLP, and other private attorneys.

The case was originally filed in 2012 against Luzerne County. The county's attorneys argued that those who feel their defense was inadequate can always appeal their convictions. In Roper's view, that sends a chilling message to those accused of a crime.

"'While you're sitting in jail, you try to go back and fix it retroactively, that's the only solution we're going to offer you,' And that's just not right," she added. "We're talking about a fundamental constitutional right."

She explained overturning a conviction can be extremely difficult and while in jail, defendants lose their jobs, their homes, and even families.

And Roper noted that many people who can't afford their own lawyer never even get to trial.

"Lots and lots of people plead guilty because they just don't see a reasonable alternative, and their public defenders are so overworked, they can't offer them a reasonable alternative," Roper lamented.

The state Supreme Court ruling clears the way for the original case to go to trial, challenging the funding of the Luzerne County Office of the Public Defender.

Andrea Sears, Public News Service - PA