By Michael Whiteman
In 2001, I, along with former State Sen. Warren Anderson and former Assemblyman Richard Bartlett, the original authors of the legislation that provided for appointed counsel to the poor in criminal cases, came together with all the past presidents of the New York State Bar Association, clergy, business leaders and others to form the Committee for an Independent Public Defense Commission.
We clearly saw that our efforts in the 1960s to establish a well-run program of defense representation had gone off the rails, and we introduced legislation that promoted the vision of state oversight for a constitutional responsibility that was laid at the state’s feet 50 years ago in Gideon v. Wainwright, the hallmark case establishing the right to counsel.
Three years have passed since the 2010 establishment of the Office of Indigent Legal Services; it lumbers along underfunded, understaffed, longing for executive fidelity and observing but glacial improvements.
Meanwhile, the inefficient patchwork of services provided at the county level remains seriously deficient. Public defense services are inadequately financed by the state, and New York State is the lead defendant in Hurrell-Harring, the statewide class action challenging the constitutionality of our state’s public defense system.
A broad cross-section of legal and activist leaders – including the Legislature’s Black, Puerto Rican, Hispanic and Asian Caucus – continues to call upon the state to adequately and creatively fund the system, to create an Independent Public Defense Commission to carry out a state takeover of the current system, and to promulgate statewide standards for caseload limits, availability of investigative resources to the defense and other ingredients necessary for competent representation.
Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has a unique opportunity to heal this broken system while acting to consolidate and reform the jerry-built hodgepodge we call New York’s public defense system.
The governor is a progressive social leader capable of harnessing public and private capital markets, redirecting resources, building partnerships and redesigning government. He can be a voice for the imperative need to treat governmental adversaries fairly. He can invite the bar and industry to the table. He can collegially bring opponents together. Most importantly, he can appreciate the need for competence, resources and professional defender independence.
The challenge of the moment is to act now to settle the Hurrell-Harring lawsuit. The trial is scheduled for March. The governor should lead the way.
Michael Whiteman is a partner in Whiteman, Osterman and Hanna who formerly served as counsel to Gov. Nelson Rockefeller. He chairs the Committee for an Independent Public Defense Commission.