The editorial board of the New York Times discussed the bill vetoed by Governor Andrew Cuomo below.
Despite a bill being unanimously passed by New York in June that would require the state to pick up more of the cost of legal services for people who can’t afford them, it was VETOED by Govenor Andrew Cuomo. He stated that the bill contained an more than $600 million in legal aid costs that were unrelated to to criminal defense.
Cuomo stated he would sign a bill focused on the constitutional obligation to ensure proper legal counsel in criminal cases, providing about $150 million a year. The Legislature should hold him to that worthy pledge and pass a new bill immediately.
The obligation to provide lawyers for indigent defendants is enshrined in the Sixth Amendment, and it makes sense that the state should pay for it. But a 1965 New York law pawned off that responsibility on the 62 county governments, where local budget shortfalls and mismanagement have led to predictably disastrous results. Poor defendants in some counties sit behind bars for months before even meeting a lawyer; some public defenders are juggling as many as 700 cases at once — nearly double the maximum recommended by legal experts.
The crisis has been brewing for a long time; a 2006 report commissioned by the former chief judge of New York called the arrangement, under which the counties now spend about $400 million per year, “severely dysfunctional.” A partial solution was reached in 2014, when the state agreed to pay for several important reforms in settling a long-running class-action lawsuit brought on behalf of indigent defendants in five upstate counties. The reforms included lower caseload limits and better training for overworked lawyers in those counties; and the assurance that every defendant is represented by a lawyer at his or her first court appearance, where the judge takes a plea and sets bail.
The Legislature’s bill grew out of this settlement and would have had statewide effect. Even under the measure, counties would continue to pay for a significant share of public defense costs. But Mr. Cuomo objected to the bill because it would also have paid for legal services for poor people in family court and surrogate’s court, which handles wills, estates and adoptions.
Mr. Cuomo also balked at a provision that would give what he considers too much power to the Office of Indigent Legal Services, the agency responsible for setting statewide public-defense standards. But if it is to carry out its intended function, a robust public defense system requires independence from political pressure above all.
With his veto, Mr. Cuomo missed a chance to show leadership by demonstrating New York’s broader commitment to well-funded legal services, which is critical not only when a person faces jail time, but also in noncriminal contexts like family court, where judges can remove children from their parents and order juveniles into state custody. Providing legal counsel to the poor in those cases will have to wait for another bill.
The New York Times January 6, 2017, on Page A18 of the New York edition with the headline: New York’s Unequal Justice for the Poor.