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March 16, 2010; New York Times | Lawyers, legal aid groups, lawmakers, prosecutors and judges—and probably many people serving prison time—will be carefully watching whether a class-action suit being brought by the American Civil Liberties Union gets the go-ahead next week from the New York State Court of Appeals.

At issue is whether the public defender system adequately provides representation to defendants in criminal trials. According to the New York Times, under the present system it’s only after a conviction that defendants are generally able to make the case that they were not well represented by their court appointed lawyers. As the Times notes: “The court then reviews each appeal case by case. But the civil liberties lawyers argue that a broad review is necessary because the arrangement has not addressed systemic failings that unconstitutionally leave tens of thousands of defendants without meaningful representation in every part of the state.”

While the case is only to be argued in New York, its outcome could be felt nationwide. Some 80 percent of those on trial for felonies in large states don’t have the money to hire their own lawyers, leaving them at the mercy of whomever the court assigns them.

Not surprisingly, New York State has been fighting aggressively against the suit, which has been in play since 2007. The state argues that a court victory by the civil liberties group could result in what the Times says opponents describe as a “a judicial invasion of the authority of the Legislature and the governor.”

Kathleen B. Hogan, the president of the State District Attorneys Association, who feels the current system is “working well and protecting every right,” worries that if the suit goes against the state it would create chaos, and lead thousands of defendants to seek that their convictions be overturned, claiming poor representation at trial.

For Corey Stoughton, the lead lawyer for the Civil Liberties Union, that is the crux of the case. She argues that poor representation leads to convictions of innocent people and pressure on defendants to plead guilty. For now, a lot hangs in the balance for both sides.—Bruce Trachtenberg