Court Allows Challenge To Legal Aid Society In NY

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From the New York Times:

There are enough signs that New York’s system of providing public defenders is failing poor people that a broad class-action suit challenging the system can move ahead, the state’s highest court ruled Thursday, setting the stage for a sweeping battle in the courts and perhaps the Legislature. The 4-to-3 ruling came in a closely watched suit that civil liberties lawyers said could be a model for similar challenges around the country.

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The ruling, written by the state’s chief judge, Jonathan Lippman, said that the suit — which had been bitterly opposed by the state — could proceed because it posed fundamental questions about the fairness of the criminal justice system. “Wrongful conviction, the ultimate sign of a criminal justice system’s breakdown and failure, has been documented in too many cases,” the decision said.

The ruling was something of a milestone after decades of reports, and findings by state commissions, that New York’s locally financed system for meeting the constitutional requirement to provide lawyers for indigent defendants — which varies greatly from county to county — is inadequate, with inattentive, unavailable, poorly trained and supervised lawyers handling huge caseloads. In many counties, it noted, poor defendants are routinely arraigned without lawyers at all during initial appearances, where bail is set and many defendants are sent to jail.

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