The legal system in Luzerne County, as the world learned in 2009, had abandoned thousands of area juveniles accused of crimes, allowing justice for them to be delayed, distorted or flat-out denied.
Fallout from the dirty deeds committed by two county judges and others involved in the kids-for-cash scandal was calamitous and costly.
So residents in this community — out of all the places in Pennsylvania, perhaps around the globe — should be particularly sensitive today to how the county court treats less powerful people, especially the poor. By law, each indigent man and woman facing a criminal charge deserves a vigorous defense. But outspoken ex-Chief Public Defender Al Flora contends the defender’s office lacks enough lawyers to consistently and capably do the job.
A lawsuit against the county regarding staffing, which Flora had filed in tandem with three defendants who maintain they received less-than-adequate representation, was tossed out Tuesday. Luzerne County Judge Joseph M. Augello ruled “Plaintiff Flora is not aggrieved in that he no longer has a direct, immediate or substantial interest in the matter.”
Apparently, if Flora, who has cast himself in the role of whistle-blower, had not been terminated from the county post earlier this year, the case might have proceeded. We can’t dispute Augello’s logic, in strictly interpreting case law regarding whether Flora has been “aggrieved” and has an “immediate” interest as opposed to a “remote” interest.
We can, however, join with Flora in raising a giant red flag.
This nation espouses the democratic notion that all accused individuals receive a proper defense. This state mandates that county public defender’s offices supply that defense. If individual counties can’t foot the bill for those offices, well, then the system requires a shakeup; the poor shouldn’t pay the price for officials’ benign neglect in the form of shoddy representation in court.
Flora, whom detractors say is self-aggrandizing, put the problem in the public eye. USA Today and other media outlets pounced on the issue soon after he first stopped assigning public defenders to each case in December 2011.
As Ronald Greenblatt, chairman of the Philadelphia chapter of the Pennsylvania Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, told The Huffington Post in June 2012: “The problems in Luzerne County are very well known. At some point somebody had to say enough.”
Perhaps Flora has carried the issue as far as he cares to, or can. Other advocates, however, including the American Civil Liberties Union, which represented Flora and other litigants in this matter, should have the wherewithal to keep pounding against a legal system seemingly in danger of institutionalizing two tiers of justice: one for people with money and one for people without.
In that, there would be neither law nor order.