Thursday, July 10, 2014

Judge tosses Flora’s suit

Ruling says Flora no longer has standing to sue over Public Defender’s Office staffing levels

October 22. 2013 11:22PM

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WILKES-BARRE — A Luzerne County judge has dismissed former Chief Public Defender Al Flora’s suit against the county over staffing in the office he once headed, upholding the county’s argument that Flora lacks standing since he is no longer in the post.

“Plaintiff Flora is not aggrieved in that he no longer has a direct, immediate or substantial interest in the matter,” Tuesday’s ruling by Judge Joseph M. Augello said.

Flora was terminated on April 17 and has filed a separate lawsuit claiming his ouster was a retaliatory move by county officials.

Flora’s co-litigants in the staffing suit included individuals who were defendants in county court cases and who maintain they were affected by the lack of adequate representation.

Mary Catherine Roper, an American Civil Liberties Union attorney representing Flora and the other plaintiffs, said it was too early to say whether there would be an appeal or what form it might take, but that the matter is under review.

“We’re looking at our options,” she said.

Blue Bell attorney Deborah H. Simon, representing the county and county Manager Robert C. Lawton, said she was aware of the ruling Tuesday afternoon, but had not yet spoken to county officials.

“I would think they’re pleased that they can go back to trying to work out this problem in a more reasonable framework than a litigation situation,” Simon said.

Suit: Indigents at risk

Flora filed the suit in April 2012, claiming the Public Defender’s Office was so underfunded and understaffed it could not provide adequate defense to indigent clients. The situation had become so dire, Flora argued, he was compelled to limit the type of cases the office would accept. That left more than 300 defendants to face charges without an attorney as the county failed to provide an alternate source of legal representation, according to the lawsuit.

His allegations made national news. In March, a front-page USA Today article on the 50th anniversary of a Supreme Court ruling granting the indigent the constitutional right to a lawyer, described Flora as a “rebel” for suing in an effort to secure more staff to fulfill this mandate.

Roper said that the right to representation is at the heart of the issue, and that the plaintiffs feel strongly that the question affects so many people it should transcend the question of whether one man — or selected individuals — have standing where they believe that representation is not being provided to all as required.

Flora said in March that he couldn’t detail what additional positions he was seeking because of the pending litigation, but he said the office was “still faced with overwhelming caseloads,” or about 4,000 annually.

The Public Defender’s Office has a $2.7 million budget this year, compared to $2.5 million in 2012. The budget provides funding for 40 positions, including 24 full-time and part-time assistant public defenders.

The proposed 2014 budget now under consideration would provide slightly less for the office, at $2,695,420. It is not known how many positions that would cover, as county Manager Robert Lawton has yet to release a report on expected staffing levels for next year.

Second suit pending

The 2012 case is separate from another suit filed by Flora in April of this year, claiming his termination by the county on April 17 was in retaliation for reforms Flora was imposing in the Public Defender’s Office, and Flora’s revelation that 3,000 juvenile cases associated with the kids-for-cash scandal had not been expunged, despite a 2009 state Supreme Court order.

Flora became part-time chief public defender in May 2010 after 30 years in the office.

Roper said the sole focus of Flora’s federal suit over his termination, which is still in progress, is for him to be reinstated.

“That’s the only relief he is seeking,” Roper said. “This isn’t about money. It really is about fixing the public defender’s office.”

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