New York Governor Celebrates New Year’s by Denying Effective Counsel to the State’s Poor

by Kira Lerner –

Advocates called it “the most important criminal justice reform legislation in memory.”

Hours before the start of the new year, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) vetoed legislation that would have required the state to provide legal assistance to poor defendants in all New York counties.

The legislation, supported by both Democrats and Republicans, would have given the state seven years to take over indigent defense from local jurisdictions, including many that have been accused of violating the Constitution by failing to provide effective counsel.

But Cuomo’s office said in a statement late Saturday that the governor would not be enacting the bill, citing the high cost to taxpayers and the failure of last-minute attempts at a compromise with the legislature.

“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,” Cuomo spokesman Richard Azzopardi said. He added that the issue will be revisited in the upcoming legislative session.

The bill would have included a number of reforms to the state’s public defense system as part of a 2014 settlement in litigation alleging the state’s system for legal defense violates both the U.S. and state constitutions. Under the proposed legislation, the state would have limited public defense attorneys’ caseloads and required the presence of counsel at a criminal defendant’s first court appearance. It also would have allocated resources to ensure that all defendants can get adequate representation.

New York’s legislature passed the bill with unanimous support in June, and Cuomo waited until the final moments of 2016 to announce his veto.

The director of New York’s chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union said she is “deeply disappointed” in the decision, calling the bill “the most important criminal justice reform legislation in memory.”

“[Cuomo] 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,” said NYCLU Executive Director Donna Lieberman.

With the 2016 legislative session already over, Cuomo’s veto cannot be overridden. State lawmaker Patricia Fahy (D), who introduced the bill in the assembly, said she will ensure that the legislation is addressed again next session.

Reprinted with permission from Think Progress, a branch of The Center for American Progress