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Press Release

Attorney General Holder Applauds Settlement to Improve Right to Counsel in New York State

For Immediate Release
Office of Public Affairs

Attorney General Eric Holder on Monday hailed the outcome in a lawsuit challenging the lack of funding for public defender programs in five counties in New York State, calling the finalized settlement in the case a “major step forward.”

In September 2014, the Justice Department had filed a statement of interest in the case, known as Hurrell-Harring v. State of New York.  This represented the first time the department addressed the constructive denial of counsel in state courts.  After extensive negotiations, the parties reached a settlement, which Judge Gerald Connolly of the Supreme Court of the State of New York, Albany County, has now signed.  The settlement agreement, which applies to five New York counties, guarantees that indigent criminal defendants will have legal counsel at arraignment, establishes and implements caseload and workload standards for public defenders, provides for effective supervision and training of public defenders and sets new indigency standards for determining whether a defendant is entitled to public counsel.

“This settlement marks a major step forward in the safeguarding of the essential right to effective legal representation, which stands at the core of America’s criminal justice system,” said Attorney General Eric Holder.  “It is simply unacceptable that, today – more than half a century after the Supreme Court’s landmark decision in Gideon v. Wainright affirmed the right to counsel for low-income defendants – America’s indigent defense systems continue to exist in a state of crisis, and inequities remain all too common.  That’s why, especially in recent years, the Department of Justice has fought tirelessly to ensure effective representation for all who are charged with crimes.  With this settlement, we send a clear message that this fight will continue.  And we will never waver in our commitment to ensuring that all Americans receive the rights and protections to which they are entitled.”

“This important settlement agreement is a model, not just for the five counties named in the case, but for all of New York State, and for the country,” said Acting Assistant Attorney General Vanita Gupta of the Civil Rights Division.  “The right to counsel is one of the core guarantees of the Bill of Rights, and yet, as countless cases and studies show, indigent defense systems across the county are facing significant challenges in meeting their Sixth Amendment obligations.”

In Hurrell-Harring the plaintiffs alleged that a lack of funding for indigent defense deprives public defenders of the time or resources to prepare cases or meaningfully represent their clients and amounts to the denial of counsel in violation of Gideon v. Wainwright and the Sixth Amendment.  In its statement of interest, the department advised the court that under resourcing public defense may force even otherwise competent and well-intentioned public defenders into a position where they are, in effect, a lawyer in name only.  The statement of interest added that if the court finds that the plaintiffs have been constructively denied the right to counsel on a systemic basis, the court has broad injunctive authority to remedy those constitutional violations. 

The Hurrell-Harring case was filed in 2007 and brought by former indigent defendants who faced criminal charges in Onondaga, Ontario, Schuyler, Suffolk and Washington counties in the state of New York.

Updated April 28, 2016

Access to Justice
Press Release Number: 15-331