NY Court Hears Lawsuit Challenging Public Defender System

New York's highest court heard arguments today in a lawsuit charging that the state is violating its constitutional duty to provide effective counsel to poor people accused of crimes.

The New York Civil Liberties Union filed the suit in 2007, and says overworked and under-trained lawyers fail to show up for court appearances, visit their clients in jail, or call their clients back.

The question before the Court of Appeals is: Would judges be stepping on the toes of legislators and the governor if they order reform of the state's public defender system? The plaintiffs, 20 former criminal defendants from counties outside New York City, say no -- and they say the situation is dire. They say there needs to be more oversight, caps on lawyer caseloads, and statewide standards.

"It's the time-honored role of the judiciary, of our courts, to ensure that the other branches of government are acting in accordance with fundamental rights," says Donna Lieberman of the NYCLU. She says it's up to the courts to order more funding and more state oversight for the broken public defender system.

But the state says that kind of reform should be left to lawmakers -- not judges.

It will be at least a month before the court decides whether the case can go on.