Monday, March 22, 2010

New York public defender class action takes up issues in nonmetro counties, too

The New York Supreme Court will hear oral arguments tomorrow in a case in which the New York Civil Liberties Union is challenging the constitutionality of the state's public defender system. Read more about the suit here and access court filings here.

This story in the New York Times a few days ago reports the tale of one of the named plaintiffs, Kimberly Hurell-Harring, a young woman from Rochester who was poorly served by the public defender appointed to represent her when she was arrested for trying to smuggle less than an ounce of marijuana to her husband, a prison inmate in the Great Meadow Correctional Facility in Fort Edward, New York, population 5,892. Fort Edward is in upstate New York near the state line with Vermont, in Washington County, population 62,555.

Journalist William Glaberson describes the story as one of "a small-town lawyer and part-time public servant sinking in personal and professional quicksand that few people knew about when he showed up to represent" Hurell-Harring.

Elsewhere, Glaberson's report suggests ways in which small-town characteristics influenced events. These include lack of anonymity--that is, the public defender, Patrick E. Barber, was known among those in the Washington County jail for doing a crummy job.

Another has to do with rural economies and local government. Counties like Washington County apparently have populations so small that case loads do not merit full-time, institutional public defender offices. An economy of scale for delivering indigent defense services can apparently not be achieved, so the county hires one or more part-time public defenders. One of these was Barber. Counties typically do not supervise such lawyer/contractors, and in many instances their caseloads are crushing, especially when added to the private practice work they often also maintain. Here's an excerpt from the Times story about how Washington County came to engage Barber to do the indigent defense work.

There was not much in the way of vetting when [the lawyer] put in a cost-conscious bid to become Washington County’s chief public defender, a part-time position he added to his private practice of trial work, debt collections, wills and divorces. It was quickly settled. Beginning in 2006, he would get $50,000 a year and some rent for the office he had shared with a law partner who had recently died. “We have to have a good reason not to take the low bid,” said John A. Rymph, the chairman of the County Board of Supervisors.
Local government financing of indigent defense is a subject about which I (along with Beth Colgan of Columbia Legal Services) have an article forthcoming in the Arizona Law Review. It's called Justice Deserts: Spatial Inequality and Local Funding of Indigent Defense and can be downloaded here.

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