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Gideon’s Reprise

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In Hurrell-Harring v. New York, the Law School’s New York Civil Liberties Clinic made key contributions to a seven-year-long class action lawsuit that culminated in a historic settlement for reforming New York State’s public defense system.

The New York Civil Liberties Union, law firm Schulte Roth & Zabel, and students from the clinic demonstrated that the state’s public defense system violated the Constitution’s right to counsel—affirmed in 1963 by the US Supreme Court in Gideon v. Wainwright—by not providing poor defendants with adequate legal representation. The students were able to show that poor defendants were routinely arraigned without attorneys, burdened by high bail, and imprisoned for long periods of time for petty crimes. The class action has wide ramifications and has drawn the attention of other states as well as the US Department of Justice, which filed a statement of interest in September 2014.

In the settlement, New York State agreed to a series of major reforms, including ensuring that poor defendants have lawyers at their first court appearances and substantially limiting the number of cases carried by public defense lawyers.

“Marshaling the legal resources needed to do a case like this on behalf of poor people is an enormous challenge, and we couldn’t have done it without the students,” says Corey Stoughton, NYCLU’s lead attorney on this suit and an NYU Law adjunct professor who co-teaches the clinic with Clinical Professor of Law Claudia Angelos.

The clinic was victorious in another suit against the city this year: New York City announced in July that for the first time it would allow visits from family members and maintain records of the impoverished and unclaimed dead buried at Hart Island, the nation’s largest potter’s field.

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