By Christopher Zoukis

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has taken the bold step of finding a new cause of action that would allow indigent criminal defendants to prospectively sue a county for failing to adequately fund and operate a public defender’s office.

The right to the assistance of competent counsel in criminal prosecutions is guaranteed by the Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution and the seminal case of Gideon v. Wainwright, 372 U.S. 335 (1963). However, that right sometimes comes into conflict with the financial and logistical realities of government. The result of this conflict is often an overburdened public defender’s office that cannot fulfill its constitutional mandate.

According to a class action complaint filed in Pennsylvania, that has been the case in Luzerne County. Indeed, at the trial level, the court said that “[t]o describe the state of affairs in the Office of the Public Defender as approaching crisis state is not an exaggeration.”

Prior to the decision in this case, the only thing short-changed criminal defendants could do when facing inadequate representation from the public defender’s office was to file a post-conviction ineffective assistance of counsel claim. In Pennsylvania, however, indigent defendants receiving constitutionally deficient representation due to funding problems need no longer wait until the sub-par representation costs them a fair defense.

They can now file a claim requesting injunctive relief, forcing the county to provide adequate funding for the public defender’s office.

“We recognize for the first time in Pennsylvania a prospective cause of action enabling indigent criminal defendants to prove that the level of funding provided by a county to operate a public defender’s office has left that office incapable of complying with Gideon, creating the likelihood of systematic, widespread constructive denial of counsel in contravention of the Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution,” said the court. “We further hold that Appellants have sufficiently averred facts to state a claim upon which injunctive relief can be granted.”

In Luzerne County, Pennsylvania, at least, it seems that help is on the way to the overworked and under-appreciated Public Defenders Office. See: Kuren v. Luzerne County of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, Supreme Court of Pennsylvania, Case Nos. 57 MAP 2015 and 58 MAP 2015 (Argued April 6, 2016).

This article originally appeared in Prison Legal News on August 22, 2017. 

About Christopher Zoukis
Christopher Zoukis is an outspoken prisoner rights and correctional education advocate who is incarcerated at FCI Petersburg Medium in Virginia. He is an award-winning writer whose work has been published widely in major publications such as The Huffington Post, Prison Legal News, New York Daily News and various other print and online publications. Learn more about Christopher Zoukis at christopherzoukis.com and prisoneducation.com.

About Christopher Zoukis, MBA

Christopher Zoukis, MBA, is the Managing Director of the Zoukis Consulting Group, a federal prison consultancy that assists attorneys, federal criminal defendants, and federal prisoners with prison preparation, in-prison matters, and reentry. His books include Directory of Federal Prisons (Middle Street Publishing, 2020), Federal Prison Handbook (Middle Street Publishing, 2017), Prison Education Guide (PLN Publishing, 2016), and College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Company, 2014).