Credit: Pat Arnow

The bill had bipartisan support. Activists and advocates from various parts of New York State stood by the bill. Public defense attorneys and county governments pushed for the bill.

New York State Gov. Andrew Cuomo decided that the details of the bill would cost too much. The governor vetoed the Justice Equality Act (S. 8114/A. 10706), which would shift financial responsibility for public defense services from the counties to the state and establish more effective counsel for those who can’t afford one. The bill, sponsored by State Sen. John DeFrancisco and State Assemblywoman Patricia Fahy, also included a limit on public defense attorneys’ caseloads, the presence of counsel at a criminal defendant’s first court appearance and access to resources for adequate representation.

“I cannot increase the taxes of every taxpayer in this state to fund existing and future legal defense work in counties and with no accountability measures, nor can I dramatically increase the state’s financial burden outside of the state’s budgetary process or its financial plan,” wrote Cuomo in his veto of the bill sent to the Senate. “This bill blindly shoulders the state with an $800 million annual expense without any funding or plan to support it.”

Activists and advocates came out to denounce Cuomo for vetoing the bill.

“We are deeply disappointed that the governor has vetoed the most important criminal justice reform legislation in memory,” said New York Civil Liberties Union Executive Director Donna Lieberman in a statement. “He has rejected a groundbreaking and bipartisan fix to our deeply flawed public defense system and left in place the status quo, in which the state violates the rights of New Yorkers every day and delivers unequal justice.”

Jonathan E. Gradess, executive director of the New York State Defenders Association, said that Cuomo set the precedent with the settlement of the Hurrell-Harring lawsuit.

“It is stunning that the Governor would veto Assembly Member Fahy and Senator DeFrancisco’s unanimously passed bill, which has the support of a diverse group of 211 organizations and counties from the Conservative Party to the Catholic Conference, the New York Civil Liberties Union to the NAACP, the NYS Bar Association to the NYS Association of Counties,” stated Gradess. “First, by settling the Hurrell-Harring lawsuit, the governor affirmatively acknowledged the State’s fiscal responsibility for local public defense services and much-needed improvements with statewide quality standards. However, by his veto today, the Governor inexplicably ignored this reality.”

“This bill would directly and positively impact heavily policed communities by improving the quality of public defense services, bringing fairness to an unfair system and allowing people of color to routinely see and feel justice,” wrote Assembly Member Nick Perry, chairperson of the Black, Puerto Rican, Hispanic & Asian State Legislative Caucus in a Dec. 28 letter to Cuomo on behalf of the caucus. “It is a terrible mistake to veto this bill for costs [or any other reason] …You shouldn’t put a price tag on justice.”

The legislation for the Justice Equality Act has its beginnings in a settlement from a 2014 class-action lawsuit brought by the NYCLU and Schulte Roth & Zabel LLP against New York State. The lawsuit, Hurrell-Harring v. State of New York, claimed that New York State understaffed and poorly resourced a dysfunctional public defense system in five counties. The lawsuit claimed that the state violated the U.S. Constitution and the New York State Constitution.

After the settlement, the five counties at the center of the lawsuit were required to expand guidelines of who’s eligible to receive court-appointed counsel and abide by new caseload standards for public defenders. The Justice Equality Act hoped to expand this change to the whole state. Cuomo wants an expansion as well, but thinks the currently proposed legislation isn’t the way to do it.

The AmNews’ attempts to contact Cuomo’s representative were unsuccessful, but spokesman Rich Azzopardi told Politico, “Until the last possible moment, we attempted to reach an agreement with the Legislature that would have achieved the stated goal of this legislation, been fiscally responsible and had additional safeguards to ensure accountability and transparency. Unfortunately, an agreement was unable to be reached and the Legislature was committed to a flawed bill that placed an $800 million burden on taxpayers—$600 million of which was unnecessary—with no way to pay for it and no plan to make one. As the governor said, this issue will be revisited this upcoming year.”