PITTSBURGH – Poor people must be allowed to sue for enforcement of their right to legal counsel, according to an argument being made today in a Pennsylvania courtroom.

Four years ago, the ACLU of Pennsylvania successfully sued Luzerne County on behalf of the county’s chief public defender and several defendants. The suit maintained that the public defender’s office was so understaffed that it could not provide adequate criminal defense services. But rather than reform, the county fired the public defender and challenged the right of the defendants to sue.

Mary Catherine Roper, deputy legal director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania, said that like anyone else, indigent criminal defendants can ask the court to enforce their rights.

“If you are threatened with a violation of your constitutional rights, you can try to go to court to stop that from happening,” she said. “You can get an order from a court to change the situation so your rights aren’t violated.”

The county has argued that as long as defendants have a lawyer assigned to their case, they must first be convicted before they can appeal their case, claiming their lawyer did a poor job. However, Roper pointed out that without a public defender who has the time to look at their case and argue for reduced bail or no bail at all, indigent defendants are penalized before they even get to trial.

“You have people sitting in jail,” she said, “losing their jobs, losing their homes, losing their children just because they can’t make bail.”

The result, she said, is that courts become “plea mills” where defendants plead guilty just to get out of jail.

Unlike most states, Pennsylvania has no state public defender office. That means indigent defense is handled by the counties. So according to Roper, poor people charged in rich counties may get an adequate defense.

“But in poorer counties they don’t,” she said. “And whether you get a public defender who even has time to remember your name will depend on where you live.”

If the state Supreme Court finds that defendants in Luzerne County do have the right to sue, the issue of the county’s obligation to provide an adequate defense may still take years to resolve.

More information is online at aclupa.org.

Andrea Sears