Elliott Greenleaf won dismissal of all claims against Luzerne County and Luzerne County Manager Robert C. Lawton seeking additional government funding for the Public Defender and claiming that criminal defendants were deprived constitutional rights by the alleged lack of funding. The plaintiffs included a former Luzerne County Chief Public Defender and a “class” of criminal defendants alleging deficient legal representation. The plaintiffs were represented by attorneys from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), a prominent Philadelphia law firm, and local counsel from Wilkes-Barre, PA. In sustaining Luzerne County’s preliminary objections, the Honorable Joseph Augello of the Luzerne County Court of Common Pleas agreed with arguments made by Elliott Greenleaf attorneys and held that all of the plaintiffs lacked “standing” to advance their claims.
Judge Augello first held that the former Chief Public Defender lacked standing because he was no longer head of the office he was seeking to better fund. The Court agreed with Elliott Greenleaf and found that, at bottom, the lead plaintiff was not aggrieved because he no longer occupied the position of Chief Public Defender. As only the present Chief Public Defender is responsible for managing the allegedly underfunded office, only the present Chief Public Defender is capable of asserting the claims unsuccessfully attempted in this case. The Court additionally noted that no member of the plaintiff class is able to satisfy all of Pennsylvania’s stringent criteria for asserting “taxpayer standing,” namely by demonstrating that no persons are better situated to bring the claims and that redress through other channels is unavailable.
Judge Augello also dismissed the plaintiffs’ Amended Complaint which asserted a mandamus count seeking more government money for the Office of Public Defender, as well as claims alleging infringement of the individual plaintiffs’ 6th Amendment rights to counsel. Elliott Greenleaf persuasively argued that unelected citizens are unable to use lawsuits to compel or influence government funding priorities. Since budget decisions are left to the judgment of elected and appointed officials, Elliott Greenleaf observed that complaining taxpayers must voice their dissent at the ballot-box and not in the courtroom. The Court similarly found the plaintiffs’ 6th Amendment claims to be unavailing. The Court held that criminal defendants cannot bring ineffective assistance of counsel claims until after their trials have occurred and final judgments have been rendered. As a criminal trial is the best and only means to test and gauge the adequacy of the defense lawyer’s performance, pre-trial ineffectiveness claims are not ripe under the United States Supreme Court’s decision in Strickland v. Washington. Judge Augello’s decision joined a chorus of post-Strickland cases to hold that only a complete denial of counsel will supply grounds for and support a pre-trial 6th Amendment ineffectiveness claim.
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