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New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s resignation became effective Tuesday (Statesman). Cuomo left office in disgrace after a damning report found Cuomo sexually harassed and created a hostile work environment for female employees. A number of district attorney offices in the state have already requested information, raising the possibility of criminal charges as well (ABC News).

We don’t know if charges will be filed, let alone the outcome of a potential trial. But we do know Cuomo would be able to afford world-class legal representation in court. Already a multimillionaire (Yahoo Finance), his $50,000 annual state pension is higher than the median per capita income of the state he governed (U.S. Census Bureau). Sadly, despite the promise of legal representation for all facing criminal charges, the resources afforded the accused vary widely depending on their wealth.

Public defenders represent criminal defendants unable to hire a lawyer for themselves. They only exist because Clarence Gideon petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court from a prison cell. He had been forced to represent himself in court since his home state of Florida only provided free legal counsel for those facing the death penalty (C-Span). The Supreme Court agreed that this infringed on Gideon’s Sixth Amendment rights, ruling that “lawyers in criminal courts are necessities, not luxuries” (Department of Justice) and creating a system offers legal representation to all those accused of a crime, regardless of their ability to pay (Georgia State University).

However, there remains a deep gulf between those forced to rely on a public defender and those who can afford a private lawyer. Even the Department of Justice declared that “the promise of Gideon remains unfulfilled… Many defenders struggle under excessive caseloads and lack adequate funding and independence, making it impossible for them to meet their legal and ethical obligations to represent their clients effectively” (Department of Justice). Because of a lack of public defenders, those accused can wait over a year in jail until an attorney is even appointed to them. Some defendants are unable to communicate with their defenders, who can only devote minimal time to each of their cases. In Washington State, this ends up being an hour for each defendant (Fordham) . Shuranda Williams, who saw her public defender only one time in a year while awaiting a trial in which she may be imprisoned for life, said, “At least if I got out, I could work and afford a decent lawyer” (Marshall Project). Governor Cuomo himself settled in a class-action lawsuit that alleged that New York “failed to provide adequate legal defense for the poor” (N.Y. Times). Over-policed and over-prosecuted populations like Black Americans “bear the brunt of our public defender systems’ underfunding and overwork.” This problem is pervasive since four out of five people accused of a felony are forced to rely on a public defender (The Guardian).

Overworked public defenders are correlated with increased conviction rates, longer sentences, and higher rates of wrongful convictions (Brennan Center). While private attorneys take as many cases as they please, public defenders are regularly tasked with hundreds of cases each year (Marshall Project). The average public defender is paid just $47,500 out of law school — $2,500 less than Gov. Cuomo’s pension (Fordham).

Being able to afford a private attorney is a deviation from the norm: dependence on an overworked, under-resourced public defense system. Those with wealth provide themselves a significantly higher level of legal protection than almost everyone else, especially those from exploited and marginalized communities. The declaration that all are entitled to legal representation in American courts was a significant decision, but if representation remains inadequate, that right becomes fiction.

Key Takeaways

  • The Supreme Court ruled that those who can’t afford a lawyer must get a public defender to represent them in a criminal case.
  • In reality, public defense is so under-resourced that in some cases, lawyers can only spend an hour on average looking at cases.
  • One people with felony charges who can afford a private attorney get significantly more protection than the four of five who can’t.

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