In Flora v. County of Luzerne, the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court recently held that a former county public defender had no standing to pursue a class action alleging that a lack of County funding was a “constructive denial” of counsel, that violated the constitutional rights of the public defender’s clients.
Alleging a lack of funding, the County’s chief public defender stopped representing persons in certain categories of cases, thereby creating a backlog of hundreds of unrepresented persons facing criminal trials. The public defender, along with three individuals as purported representatives of the class, then sought to compel Luzerne County to fund the public defender with open ended resources to hire more attorneys.
The trial court declined to fund the public defender beyond his existing budget. The public defender then amended his original complaint. After the trial court dismissed it, he appealed to the Commonwealth Court.
On October 14, 2014, the Commonwealth Court held that Appellant Flora’s departure from the defender’s office deprived him of standing, and also affirmed the trial court’s dismissal of the speculative claim that the lack of County funding constituted a “constructive denial of counsel”. The Commonwealth Court held that a litigation remedy could not be abused to compel Luzerne County to change its discretionary funding decisions, as this may conflict with the legislative branch’s function, thereby violating the separation of powers.
Elliott Greenleaf’s John G. Dean, Mark W. Bufalino, James C. Crumlish III, and Deborah H. Simon successfully represented the County in the trial court and the Commonwealth Court.