Department of Justice Files Amicus Brief in Pennsylvania Right to Counsel Case
The Department of Justice has filed an amicus curiae brief in the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania in Adam Kuren, et al. v. Luzerne County, et al. The class action asserts that the public defense system in Luzerne County, Pennsylvania, is so underfunded and poorly staffed that the attorneys appointed to represent indigent adults accused of committing criminal acts are attorneys in name only. The department’s brief focuses solely on the question of whether indigent defendants can bring a civil claim alleging a constructive denial of counsel under the Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution. This brief represents the department’s first filing to address constructive denial of counsel in a state’s highest court.
“For too many public defenders, crushing caseloads and scarce resources make it impossible to adequately represent clients who need and deserve assistance in legal matters,” said Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch. “The Constitution of the United States guarantees adequate counsel for indigent defendants, and the Department of Justice is committed to ensuring that right is met.”
“This brief recognizes the importance of the right to counsel as fundamental to a fair criminal justice process,” said Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Vanita Gupta, head of the Civil Rights Division. “The Civil Rights Division will continue to ensure that this essential right is protected.”
“Public defenders around the country are being asked to do essential, even heroic work, with a fraction of the resources they need,” said Director Lisa Foster of the Office for Access to Justice. “When defenders are unable to do their jobs, their clients are stripped of a critical constitutional right, and our justice system is diminished.”
In Kuren, the plaintiffs allege that their Sixth Amendment right to counsel has been violated by the failure of the county to provide adequate resources to the Luzerne County Office of the Public Defender (OPD). According to the plaintiffs, due to the overwhelming volume of work, OPD lawyers are unable to engage in many of the basic functions of representation, including conferring with clients in a meaningful way prior to critical stages of their legal proceedings, reviewing client files, conducting discovery, engaging in motion practice, conducting factual investigations or devoting the time necessary to prepare for hearings, trials and appeals. The plaintiffs claim that the conditions are systemic and so egregious that although a lawyer may technically be appointed to represent them, they will be constructively denied their right to counsel.
In its amicus brief, the department asserts that, “the Sixth Amendment right to counsel requires more than the mere appointment of a member of the bar.” Additionally, the amicus brief goes on to explain that the right of indigent criminal defendants to an attorney may be violated by the government’s “actual denial of counsel or by a constructive denial of counsel.” A civil action to remedy such violations is viable when traditional markers of representation such as “timely and confidential consultation with clients, appropriate investigation, and meaningful adversarial testing of the prosecution’s case” are systemically absent or compromised and when substantial structural limitations “such as a severe lack of resources, unreasonably high workloads, or critical understaffing of public defender offices” result in such absence or limited representation.
Both the trial court and the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court ruled that the plaintiffs could not bring a civil claim for constructive denial of counsel. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court will now consider whether the plaintiffs’ claim can proceed.