The Luzerne County chief public defender and three clients from the office this morning filed a lawsuit against the county and its manager alleging that a lack of funding and staffing has led to his inability to represent indigent clients.
The complaint, listed as a class action, was filed by the American Civil Liberties Foundation of Pennsylvania and Dechert LLP in Philadelphia. The ACLU has had similar complaints about the Allegheny County public defender's office.
Al Flora Jr,, who was named the Luzerne County chief public defender in 2010, stopped accepting new applications for representation on Dec. 19 except in cases of homicide, felony sex offenses, extraditions, mental health, parole and probation violations, juvenile clients or adults who are incarcerated.
The failure to allocate sufficient resources has "led to a grossly underfunded and thus overwhelmed" office.
The complaint lists problems such as severe understaffing and overwhelming workloads that have resulted in "sub-constitutional representation to many indigent defendants and the complete deprivation of representation to many others."
The lawsuit seeks injunctive relief ordering the defendants to allocate funds to allow for the appointment of private counsel to represent indigent defendants, as well as an increase in the funding for the office to allow the lawyers there to provide adequate representation.
Luzerne County Manager Robert Lawton could not be reached for comment.
Allegheny County's public defender's office has come under fire in recent months from the ACLU for similar complaints. Long-time public defender Michael Machen was replaced last month by Elliot Howsie.
The ACLU previously had threatened a suit locally but said it is trying work with the office to make improvements.
Paula Reed Ward: email@example.com or 412-263-2620. First Published April 10, 2012 1:00 PM