The Most Important Criminal Justice Reform Case You’ve Never Heard Of

By Mary Catherine Roper, Deputy Legal Director, ACLU of Pennsylvania

On Wednesday, April 6, the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania (SCOPA) heard argument in Kuren v. Luzerne County, which may be the most important case you’ve never heard of. The one question before SCOPA in Kuren is whether clients of an understaffed public defender office who know their lawyers do not have time to fight for them can ask any court to protect their rights.

Like many places around the country, public defender offices in Pennsylvania are chronically underfunded and understaffed. If you are one of the 80% of people charged with a crime who cannot afford to hire a lawyer, that means you will be represented by a lawyer who has so many cases that he or she has little or no time to talk with you, no time to hunt down documents or witnesses who can help with your defense, no time to argue for a reduction in your bail or your release without bail, and no time to consider your case on an individual basis. You will see your lawyer only for a few minutes at court before your case is called — or, if you can’t make bail, through a video link while your lawyer stands in a courtroom and you sit in jail.

In most counties in Pennsylvania, your local PD office is a “plea mill.” That means that your lawyer will have no chance to investigate your case, but will bring you a deal and tell you that’s the best you will get from the prosecutor. He or she will tell you that the sentence, if you lose at trial, will be much worse, and that you will wait a year — likely in jail — for that trial, during which time you will lose your job, your home, and custody of your children.

But unlike any other state in the country, Pennsylvania has NO statewide funding for or oversight of PD offices. The local county government decides how much funding to give its PD office. Now, if Luzerne County and the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court have their way, no court can order them to provide more resources.

In April 2012, the ACLU-PA and Dechert LLP filed suit against Luzerne County on behalf of Al Flora, Jr., who was then the Chief Public Defender of Luzerne County, and indigent criminal defendants whom the overloaded PD could not represent.

The ACLU-PA presented the court with huge amounts of evidence that the Luzerne County PD office couldn’t keep up with all of the people who needed help. Most of the lawyers in the PD office worked without desks, computers or even phones. The administrative staff could not even keep track of files, much less help the lawyers with investigations or client communications. Two months after we filed suit, the trial judge ordered the county to allow Flora to hire more lawyers as a first step, and to come up with a plan to deal with the “crisis” in the PD office.

Luzerne County’s “plan” to deal with the crisis? Firing Al Flora and hiring a new Chief Public Defender who tried to stop the case from moving forward.

When the ACLU-PA continued the suit on behalf of the indigent clients who rely on the PD office, the county argued that criminal defendants aren’t allowed to file suit to protect their right to adequate representation — that as long as they have a lawyer in name, they have to wait to be convicted, then appeal their case, then file a “post-conviction relief” petition claiming their lawyer didn’t do a good enough job. The trial court agreed and dismissed the claims. The Commonwealth Court agreed and affirmed. Now it is for the Pennsylvania Supreme Court to decide.

But the court will have some help. The United States Department of Justice filed a brief with the Pennsylvania Supreme Court saying that PD clients in Pennsylvania should be able to sue to improve the PD office, just as PD clients in many other states have done. The American Bar Association also chimed in, as did the National and Pennsylvania Associations of Criminal Defense Lawyers. And the Innocence Project, which has proven the innocence of hundreds of wrongly convicted people, filed a brief saying that inadequately prepared lawyers are “the biggest factor” leading to wrongful convictions.

Al Flora lobbied the county for additional funds for two years before resorting to filing suit. If the county can fire any chief public defender who is willing to sue, and can stop PD clients from suing, then there will be no protection for the rights of thousands of poor people in Pennsylvania who are charged with crimes.

We need the PA Supreme Court to get this one right. Learn more about Kuren v. Luzerne County here.

We are the ACLU’s Pennsylvania affiliate, defending the Constitution and the Bill of Rights through litigation, advocacy, and community education and outreach.

We are the ACLU’s Pennsylvania affiliate, defending the Constitution and the Bill of Rights through litigation, advocacy, and community education and outreach.