St. Lawrence County attorney heading to Albany to urge Cuomo to sign Justice Equality Act that could save county millions
Friday, December 2, 2016 - 5:39 pm

By JIMMY LAWTON

CANTON -- A bill that could save St. Lawrence County millions of dollars in indigent defense costs is set to go before the governor in coming weeks.

The Justice Equality Act was passed by the Assembly and Senate in June, but has failed to receiving a signature from Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo. The bill would relieve a mandate that forces counties to pay for indigent defense.

The Justice Equality Act has been pushed by St. Lawrence County officials, including attorney Stephen Button, who has led the charge along with help from Assembly Member Pat Fahy and Senate Deputy Majority Leader John DeFrancisco.

Button said he is hopeful the governor will agree with recent court rulings and sign the bill into law.

“St. Lawrence County is pleased to be counted as one of the major proponents of the Fahy/DeFracisco Justice Equality And Public Defense Reform Act of 2016. The unanimous support of the State Legislature, the continuing support from the New York State Association of Counties, the New York and American Bar Associations, the Catholic Conference of Bishops, the NYCLU, the New York State Conservative Party and the countless others should make it clear to the Governor that this is an issue that crosses party political and social lines,” he said. “The Governor has an opportunity to take the lead on supporting constitutional rights while alleviating the fiscal burdens imposed on local governments. There is no greater opportunity left in 2016 for the Governor to announce to the citizens of New York that he will listen to their call for action and support their desired change. Good government requires that our elected officials heed the call of those whom have empowered them through election."

On Dec. 6 Button and other champions of the bill will meet in Albany to encourage the governor to take action.

That meeting will be held in the Legislative Office Building at 10:30 a.m.

In 2014, a lawsuit alleging that New York State has been derelict in its responsibilities for funding indigent defense appropriately resulted in a settlement between the plaintiffs, the State of New York and the five named counties (Schuyler, Washington, Ontario, Onondaga and Suffolk).

Terms of the settlement outlined an increase in funding from the state for the five counties, but stagnant growth for the remaining 57 counties.

This indigent defense bill would expand that precedent to all New York counties over a seven-year period with incremental increases. The bill would require the state to cover expenses for indigent defense beginning in 2017. The funding would be gradually phased in to 100 percent by 2023.

Over 50 years ago, when the Supreme Court decided everyone had a right to an attorney even if they can’t afford one, New York delegated this responsibility to counties – leading to a patchwork system and an unfair burden on local taxpayers, news release for the upcoming event says.

The bill has support of hundreds of organizations, elected officials and editorial boards across the state, including the New York State Association of Counties, the state and national Bar Associations, NYC Council Black & Latino Caucus, and the NYS Council of Veterans Organizations.

More recently the bill has gained the support of New York State Catholic Conference and National NAACP and the campaign supporting the bill released a video advertisement highlighting the support of ten editorial boards around the state and members of the Black, Puerto Rican, Hispanic and Asian Legislative Caucus, with over 120,000 viewers, according to a recent press release.