A federal judge on Monday granted former Luzerne County Chief Public Defender Al Flora’s request to have his constitutional lawsuit against the county remanded back to county court.
“We are very pleased that this matter has been returned to the Luzerne County Court of Common Pleas, where the plaintiffs filed the action originally,” said Kimberly D. Borland, lead attorney for Flora and his co-plaintiffs.
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.
In his order, U.S. District Judge Malachy E. Mannion also dismissed a county motion to dismiss Flora’s amended complaint and to disqualify plaintiff’s counsel. The dismissal was without prejudice, leaving the defense to re-file those motions.
Blue Bell attorney Deborah H. Simon, representing the county and county Manager Robert C. Lawton, said the defense was aware of the ruling. The timing of re-filings, if any, would be subject to appropriate court rules said Simon, who declined further comment.
A trial had been set to take place on Sept. 24, but Borland said a new trial date will be sought from county court officials. It was too early to say how soon the case could now be heard, he said, but a September trial would not be practical due to the addition of witnesses.
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.
The past three months have seen several developments in the 2012 case.
On May 7, the plaintiffs were granted permission to include that Flora no longer works in the office, and to add three new plaintiffs. Also at that time, the trial was continued from June 24 until September.
On May 31, the county filed a notice of removal, arguing that since Flora was claiming Sixth Amendment violations, the case properly belonged in federal court. The amendment, ratified in 1791, sets out the rights of defendants, including the right to a speedy trial and the right to legal counsel.
In his ruling, Mannion noted that the case “undisputedly could have been removed to federal court,” except that the county failed to file a notice of removal within 30 days of the original suit, as required under law.
“We do look forward to the constitutional issues being brought to trial here in Luzerne County,” Borland said.