WILKES-BARRE – Chief Public Defender Al Flora Jr. on Thursday filed a motion seeking a court order that would permit him to immediately hire six more attorneys and direct Luzerne County to pay private attorneys to represent indigent defendants who have been denied representation by his office.
The motion, filed by the American Civil Liberties Union, requests the court grant the relief immediately to address the "crisis" that has developed within the Public Defender's Office due to a lack of staffing.
Flora on Tuesday filed a class-action lawsuit against the county that seeks to force it to increase funding for his office so that he can hire additional attorneys. The court motion filed Thursday, known as a peremptory writ of mandamus, would allow Flora to obtain part of the relief he is requesting while other aspects of the lawsuit remain pending.
The class-action suit was filed on behalf of Flora and criminal defendants who qualified, but were denied representation by the Public Defender's Office due to a policy Flora implemented in December that limits the types of cases his office will accept.
According to the suit, approximately 300 indigent defendants have been denied an attorney. The county has not taken any steps to provide them with alternate legal representation.
That failure to provide representation has created an extreme hardship for the plaintiffs as they have been forced to attend court hearings on their own, the suit says.
A writ of mandamus is a legal action that is brought to compel a government entity to fund services it is legally obligated to provide. In this case, the county is obligated by the U.S. and Pennsylvania Constitutions to provide legal representation for defendants who cannot afford to hire an attorney.
Flora's motion seeks to compel the county to set aside money to pay private attorneys to represent the defendants as an interim solution while the lawsuit is pending.
He also is asking a judge to order the county to lift a hiring freeze, which would permit him to fill four vacant positions that are included in the 2012 budget, as well as two additional attorneys to handle appeals and an additional secretary.
Luzerne County Senior Judge Joseph Augello has scheduled a hearing on the motion for 10 a.m. May 10.
In a related matter, a federal judge on Thursday scheduled a hearing for April 20 on Flora's motion for an injunction that would prevent the county from firing him in retaliation for filing the class-action lawsuit. The motion will be heard at 9:30 a.m. by U.S. District Judge A. Richard Caputo in the federal courthouse in Wilkes-Barre.
According to the suit, approximately 300 indigent defendants have been denied an attorney.