The ACLU of Pennsylvania filed a class action lawsuit on April 10, 2012, against Luzerne County, alleging that gross and chronic underfunding of its Office of the Public Defender (OPD) has led to widespread violations of poor criminal defendants' constitutional right to adequate counsel. The lawsuit requests a preliminary injunction to allow the OPD to continue to decline representation until caseloads reach manageable levels, to lift a hiring freeze to allow the OPD to fill numerous vacancies, and to order the county to pay for private counsel to represent over 300 indigent criminal defendants who are currently without a lawyer.
In December 2011, faced with limited resources after Luzerne County commissioners repeatedly refused his requests to authorize adequate funds, Chief Public Defender Al Flora, Jr., determined that overwhelming caseloads were preventing his lawyers from providing representation that met constitutional and professional standards. To remedy the problem, he began restricting new cases to only the most serious ones, such as murder, sex and other felonies, that resulted in pre-trial detention -- leaving many individuals to face criminal prosecutions without lawyers. To date over 300 eligible individuals have been turned away.
In December 2012, Luzerne County embarked on a series of decisions and actions that culminated in Mr. Flora’s removal as chief defender in April 2013. A separate employment lawsuit is proceeding in federal court seeking his reinstatement to the chief defender position. That lawsuit alleges that his firing was illegal retaliation for Flora’s constitutionally protected activity, including his efforts to secure funding for the Office of the Public Defender.