Gideon v. Wainwright, 372 U.S. 335 (1963) guarantees that criminal defendants who cannot afford a lawyer must be provided one by the state. In a groundbreaking decision today, New York’s highest court ruled that “serious questions have arisen in this and other jurisdictions as to whether Gideon‘s mandate is being met in practice.” And these questions are significant enough to warrant a class action against the State of New York by criminal defendants left to suffer the consequences.
In a lengthy opinion (viewable here), Chief Judge Lippman goes out of his way to point out that this is not a Strickland issue about whether defendants are getting ineffective assistance of counsel. The issue is whether the state is denying them counsel, period.
In order to allow the class action to go forward, the court had to find that there’s a basis for that suit, that looked at in the light most favorable to the plaintiffs they actually have a case. So what did the court see here?
Judges are deciding who is or is not “indigent” for the purposes of assigning counsel, and there are no standards for that determination. There’s no rhyme or reason to it. There’s no consistency. People who perhaps should be getting a public defender wind up never getting a lawyer at all. There’s a huge Due Process and Equal Protection violation right here.
Defendants are arraigned without having a lawyer present. Bail gets set in amounts they could never afford. And they wind up languishing in jail without representation, even for minor offenses. They lose their jobs in the meantime, and lose their homes when they can’t pay the rent, and their families suffer enormously.
Defendants appear in significant court appearances without counsel. They enter into pleas without a lawyer. This despite the clear language of CPL 180.10(5) forbidding a court from proceeding without counsel, unless the defendant has knowingly agreed to it.
In instances where lawyers do get appointed, they’re incompetent. They don’t confer with their clients. They don’t learn the case. There’s a different lawyer at each proceeding, just as unfamiliar with the case as the previous one. They don’t respond to client inquiries however urgent. They either miss court appearances, or if they do appear they’re unprepared to proceed.
The appointed lawyers waive important rights, without first conferring with their clients and getting authorization. They make “virtually no efforts on their nominal clients’ behalf,” as the opinion puts it.
“Actual representation assumes a certain basic representational relationship.” The facts here show the opposite, that there are “serious questions as to whether any such relationship may be really said to have existed.” In other words, counsel may have been appointed, but there was never any real attorney-client relationship. This is not ineffective representation — it is the absence of representation.