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Press Release

Department of Justice Files Statement of Interest in New York State Right to Counsel Case

For Immediate Release
Office of Public Affairs

The Department of Justice today filed a statement of interest with the Supreme Court of the State of New York, Albany County in Hurrell-Harring v. State of New York.  In this class action litigation, the plaintiffs allege that, due to systemic failures in four New York counties, indigent criminal defendants have been constructively denied the right to counsel. 

In Hurrell-Harring the plaintiffs allege 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. 

“To truly guarantee adequate representation for low-income defendants, we must ensure that public defenders’ caseloads allow them to do an effective job,” said Attorney General Eric Holder.  “The Department of Justice is committed to addressing the inequalities that unfold every day in America’s courtrooms, and to fulfilling the Supreme Court’s historic decision in Gideon v. Wainwright.  America’s indigent defense systems exist in a state of crisis, and over 50 years after it was made, the promise of Gideon is not being met.”

“This case is emblematic of a national crisis in indigent criminal defense,” said Acting Assistant Attorney General Molly Moran 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 country are facing significant challenges in meeting their Sixth Amendment obligations.”

The purpose of the statement of interest is to provide the court with a framework to assess the plaintiffs’ claim of constructive denial of counsel.  As the department explained in the statement of interest, “An analysis of Gideon cases informs the United States’ position that constructive denial of counsel may occur when: (1) on a systemic basis, counsel for indigent defendants face severe structural limitations, such as a lack of resources, high workloads, and understaffing of public defender offices; and/or (2) indigent defenders are unable or are significantly compromised in their ability to provide the traditional markers of representation for their clients, such as timely and confidential consultation, appropriate investigation, and meaningful adversarial testing of the prosecution’s case.”

The Hurrell-Harring case was filed in 2007 and brought by former indigent defendants who faced criminal charges in five New York counties.  The plaintiffs seek systemic reform to prevent future violations of the right to counsel. The state court trial is scheduled to begin on Oct. 7, 2014.

Updated April 28, 2016

Access to Justice
Press Release Number: 14-1035