On June 13, 2024, ACLU-PA filed a lawsuit against Governor Josh Shapiro and the leadership of the state General Assembly over the commonwealth’s inadequate public defense system for people who cannot afford an attorney, fueled by the lack of state funding for public defenders. Despite the constitutional right to an attorney and the state Supreme Court’s affirmation of this right, Pennsylvania fails to provide adequate funding or oversight for public defenders. That leaves more than 100,000 Pennsylvanians who can’t afford to pay for a lawyer without effective assistance of counsel every year. 

Over the past three decades, all three branches of Pennsylvania’s government have recognized the depth of this constitutional crisis, but it wasn’t until Governor Josh Shapiro’s allocation of $7.5 million in indigent defense funding in 2023 that the state provided any money for public defenders. With the 67 counties spending more than $125 million combined annually for a system that fails to provide proper defense, $7.5 million in state funding will not properly address this crisis. 

In some Pennsylvania counties, people who cannot afford a private attorney can be convicted and sentenced without ever receiving counsel. In other instances, those who are incarcerated are frequently faced with the coercive choice of pleading guilty to win their release before they even have the opportunity to be appointed a public defender. 

The lawsuit asks the court to find that Pennsylvania’s reliance on county funding for public defenders is a violation of the Pennsylvania and United States Constitutions and to have oversight over the state’s plan to fix these constitutional violations. 


Witold J. Walczak, Veronica Miller, Ari Shapell, Stephen Loney, and Solomon Furious Worlds of ACLU of PA

Pro Bono Law Firm(s)

John Grogan, Mary Catherine Roper, David Nagdeman of Langer Grogan & Diver PC; David Rudovsky and Susan Lin of Kairys, Rudovsky, Messing, Feinberg, and Lin; Suzanne Turner, Vernon Francis, Friedrich Wilhelm Sachse, and Anthony Leyh of Dechert LLP

Date filed

June 13, 2024


Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania