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September 29, 2016

Court: You can sue Pa. counties for underfunded public defender's offices

Supreme Court ruling could spark similar lawsuits

In a case that could spark a series of similar lawsuits across the state, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that a suit alleging that an underfunded public defender's office cannot properly defend criminal defendants can go to trial.

The high court acknowledged the ruling's potential ripple effect. However, the justices said in their decision that the "potential burden of such litigation cannot outweigh our Commonwealth’s obligation to comply meaningfully and completely" with the constitutional right to legal representation.

The original suit was filed by now-former Luzerne County chief public defender Al Flora. Flora had been requesting extra funding and the lifting of a hiring freeze because his office could not adequately provide counsel to every defendant.

After the county decreased his office's funding in 2012 despite "mounting caseloads and overwhelmed attorneys," Flora sued the county for more funding, claiming without the proper resources, his office could not guarantee a defendant's right to an attorney.

The suit never went to trial because Flora was fired and a county judge ruled Flora no longer had proper legal standing. The case went to Commonwealth Court on appeal, but a judge ruled the issue was best resolved by the political process, not through the legal system.

The Supreme Court disagreed, however. The justices ruled that Flora had sufficient grounds to pursue legal action to remedy "widespread, systematic and constructive denial of counsel when alleged deficiencies in funding and resources provided by the county deny indigent defendants their constitutional right to counsel."

Flora filed his lawsuit along with several defendants from Luzerne County who were not afforded representation because of the office's lack of funding. The Supreme Court did not compel the county to provide more funding, as requested in the suit, but did decide the case had legal merit and could go to trial.

As noted in the high court's ruling, Pennsylvania is the only state in the nation that relies on county funding for public defender's offices instead of state funding. This leaves Pennsylvania "consistently ranked at the bottom for indigent defense," according to the American Civil Liberties Union.