A Significant Stride for New York’s Legal System: Cuomo Agrees to Settlement

November 13th, 2014

By Jared Gans


Over fifty years ago, the Supreme Court held in the case of Gideon v. Wainwright that states are required to provide defense lawyers to people charged with serious crimes and who are unable to afford legal counsel.   Almost everyone is familiar with the Miranda warning, which states in part that “[y]ou have the right to an attorney…If you cannot afford one, one will be provided for you at no cost to you.” However, is there really no cost? Approximately two years after Gideon, New York instituted a system in which each county would maintain its own public defense system.  In the belief that many counties have failed to provide adequate representation for the poor, a class action was filed in 2007 against New York, Hurrell-Harring v. New York.  The complaint claimed that public defenders in the five counties were so overworked and over-matched that poor people essentially received no legal defense at all.

Supposedly caused by a scarcity of funds, the alleged conditions consist of understaffed public defender offices, which in turn lead to minimal time spent on each case. If an attorney is spending an average of four hours with their clients, and less than an hour investigating the facts (as Gary Stein, the attorney for the Plaintiffs stated), then there is a clear disadvantage for their clients.


Governor Andrew Cuomo’s administration has agreed on a settlement that will implement changes in five New York counties: Onondaga, Ontario, Schuyler, Suffolk, and Washington. “The settlement would run seven and a half years. It requires the state to guarantee that within 20 months, all poor defendants in the five counties have defense lawyers at their first appearance. Ten months later, public defender caseloads must not exceed levels set by the state.” New York State will bear more of the financial burden in the hiring of additional defense lawyers, investigators, and expert witnesses. Governor Cuomo has already pledged to “include $5.5 million in his executive budgets over the next two fiscal years.” To increase the number of people served by the program, the settlement also requires the state’s Office of Indigent Legal Services to develop statewide standards on who should be given a public defender.


If the court approves this settlement, the effects will undoubtedly be recognized elsewhere. New York City will not be directly affected but is likely to follow suit in reforming its indigent representation policies. The New York Civil Liberties Union believes this is merely the first step in causing statewide and even nationwide reform. If the settlement continues to garner the attention of individuals such as New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman and United States Attorney General Eric Holder, then this outcome is within the realm of possibility.


As law is a field that requires a significant upfront investment, and offers an array of lucrative opportunities, it is necessary that the state partially fund the public defense system. The little financial burden the state must bear pales in comparison to the preservation of the sanctity of this constitutional right. This settlement should be viewed as a groundbreaking success for New York, and one that will open the door for the further rectification of this problem elsewhere.


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