By Cherri Gregg

HARRISBURG, Pa. (CBS) – The Pennsylvania Supreme Court issued a ruling this week that gives poor defendants a right to sue for lack of adequate counsel before they go to court.

Public defenders are usually the only option for poor defendants. But public defender’s offices are, at times, underfunded and understaffed, leaving defendants with a lawyer in name, but not substance.

“In many cases, clients were told to plead guilty,” says David Rudovsky, a Philadelphia-based civil rights attorney who argued the case at the high court on behalf of the plaintiffs.

In that case, the Chief Defender was the initial plaintiff, who sued Luzerne County where the Public Defender Office took in 4,000 cases a year, including 2000 felonies.

The problem was that the office had a 21 attorneys and most working part time. The resources were so inadequate the attorney could not visit their clients and did not have enough investigators to serve their clients.

“Most of the lawyers in the office did not have a desk, did not have a phone, they couldn’t investigate or talk to witnesses,” says Mary Catherine Roper, an attorney with the ACLU, who also represented the plaintiffs. “They just didn’t have the time. You cannot represent a client like that– and it was virtually impossible for these lawyers to represent their clients in the way they deserved to be represented.”

The court ruled that the lack of resources lead to incompetent representation and violated the Sixth Amendment of the US Constitution. Before this ruling, public defender clients had to wait until their case was over to sue. Now they don’t have to.

“This is a first step,” says Roper, “if a client’s defender lacks resources or if the client thinks their defenders office doesn’t have enough funding, they can sue to make sure the county provides adequate resources to their lawyers.”

Philadelphia has one of the best Public Defender Offices in the state, but severely underpays private, court appointed defense counsel. Appointed counsel gets a flat fee of $600 for felony cases and $300 for misdemeanors. Many believe the fees are woefully inadequate.

“This is a major problem,” says Rudovsky, “it means good lawyers don’t take these cases because it almost forces you to provide pro bono representation.”

The Innocence Project of Pennsylvania provides legal representation to individuals who have been wrongfully convicted. The organization submitted an amicus brief in the Luzerne case and believes inadequate resources for public defenders is one of the major contributors to wrongful convictions.

“When there’s a lack of funding, cases cannot be investigated, lack of investigations leads to wrongful convictions,” says Marissa Bluestein, executive director, “so lack of resources leads to wrongful convictions.”

She says the conclusion is not an indictment of lawyers:

“With those resources, lawyers just cannot do the job they were hired to do.”

Pennsylvania is one of just one or two states that does not provide funding for public defenders offices; it leaves such funding to the counties. As a result, the quality of the public defender’s office depends on where it’s located.

“The quality of a defense should not depend on your zip code,” says Roper.

Keren v. Luzerne County will allow defendants and defenders offices to bring petitions to seek more funding for public defenders offices, but does not alter funding. The defense community will be watching to see whether this ruling leads to change.

You can review the opinion here.

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