Holder Backs Lawsuit vs. New York's Legal Aid for Poor

September 25, 2014

Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., who last year declared a crisis in America’s legal-defense system for the poor, is supporting a class-action lawsuit that accuses Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and the State of New York of perpetuating a system that violates the rights of people who cannot afford to hire lawyers.

The lawsuit claims that public defenders in New York are so overworked and overmatched that poor people essentially receive no legal defense at all. It describes a system in which indigent defendants navigate courts nearly alone, relying on spotty advice from lawyers who do not have the time or money to investigate their cases or advise them properly.

Because of substandard legal aid, children are taken from their parents, defendants in minor cases are jailed for long periods and people are imprisoned for crimes for which they might have been acquitted, the civil rights lawyers who filed the suit said.

Although the United States is not a party to the case, Mr. Holder is using the same core legal arguments as the plaintiffs and the weight of the federal government to resolve what he sees as deep-seated unfairness in local criminal courts. His views will bring national attention to a case that has mainly been of interest in New York. After Mr. Holder weighed in last year in a similar case in Washington State, the judge strongly rebuked the public-defense systems in two cities there and ordered improvements.

If the New York lawsuit succeeds, the state could be forced to take over the public-defense system, which is now run by county governments. Such an outcome would also quite likely encourage similar lawsuits, and, in turn, additional intervention by the Justice Department.

Mr. Holder has made the right to legal representation part of a broad effort to address inequities in the criminal justice system. He has pushed to reduce harsh sentences that were adopted during the country’s crack epidemic, for example, and to eliminate mandatory-minimum sentences for nonviolent drug crimes.

“To truly guarantee adequate representation for low-income defendants, we must ensure that public defenders’ caseloads allow them to do an effective job,” Mr. Holder said in a statement. “The Department of Justice is committed to addressing the inequalities that unfold every day in America’s courtrooms.”

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