ACLU ends longstanding public defense case, says larger issues persist

Most counties "simply do not provide anywhere near the necessary funding to run a constitutionally-adequate public defender office."

  • Katie Meyer

(Harrisburg) — Pennsylvania’s chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union is ending a seven-year lawsuit over a lack of funding for public defense in Luzerne County.

Pennsylvania is the only state in the country that doesn’t provide any funding or central oversight for criminal defense of its poorest people.

It leaves the job totally up to counties and some, like Luzerne, have been found lacking.

Several years after the ACLU filed its 2012 suit, the state Supreme Court decided defendants in Luzerne–and elsewhere–can sue their county if they believe they have been given insufficient representation.

ACLU Legal Director Vic Walczak said it was a boon to some of the commonwealth’s poorest residents. But he added, his ultimate goal is broader: getting the state to provide money for public defense.

“It really has to be lawmakers that make this change,” he said. “But given that there doesn’t appear to be any appetite in the legislature, the ACLU will continue to look at potential litigation to be able to move the process along.”

The ACLU said it dropped the Luzerne case because the quality of indigent defense in the county has improved significantly since 2012.

But Walczak noted, he still thinks most counties “simply do not provide anywhere near the necessary funding to run a constitutionally-adequate public defender office.”

There have been some minor attempts among state lawmakers to allocate money for public defense and create centralized oversight to make sure counties are fulfilling their constitutional responsibilities.

The primary champion of the effort for many years was Montgomery County Republican Senator Stewart Greenleaf, who retired in January without making much progress on the issue.

It hasn’t gotten much purchase this legislative session, though Democratic Representative Joanna McClinton, of Philadelphia, has introduced a bill that aims to create oversight and allocate funding.

It has been referred to the House Judiciary Committee.

Governor Tom Wolf has said he supports putting state money toward indigent defense.

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