The opinion of the court was delivered by: Lippman, Chief Judge
This opinion is uncorrected and subject to revision before publication in the New York Reports.
The Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution guarantees a criminal defendant "the right to . . . have the assistance of counsel for his defense," and since Gideon v Wainwright (372 US 335 ) it has been established that that entitlement may not be effectively denied by the state by reason of a defendant's inability to pay for a lawyer. Gideon is not now controversial either as an expression of what the Constitution requires or as an exercise in elemental fair play. Serious questions have, however, arisen in this and other jurisdictions as to whether Gideon's mandate is being met in practice (see e.g., Lavallee v Justices in the Hampden Superior Court, 442 Mass 228 ) .
In New York, the Legislature has left the performance of the State's obligations under Gideon to the counties, where it is discharged, for the most part, with county resources and according to local rules and practices (see County Law articles 18-A and 18-B). Plaintiffs in this action, defendants in various criminal prosecutions ongoing at the time of the action's commencement in Washington, Onondaga, Ontario, Schuyler and Suffolk counties, contend that this arrangement, involving what is in essence a costly, largely unfunded and politically unpopular mandate upon local government, has functioned to deprive them and other similarly situated indigent defendants in the aforementioned counties of constitutionally and statutorily guaranteed representational rights. They seek a declaration that their rights and those of the class they seek to represent are being violated and an injunction to avert further abridgment of their right to counsel; they do not seek relief within the criminal cases out of which their claims arise.
This appeal results from dispositions of defendants' motion pursuant to CPLR 3211 to dismiss the action as nonjusticiable. Supreme Court denied the motion, but in the decision and order now before us (66 AD3d 84 ) the sought relief was granted by the Appellate Division. That Court held that there was no cognizable claim for ineffective assistance of counsel other than one seeking post-conviction relief, and, relatedly, that violation of a criminal defendant's right to counsel could not be vindicated in a collateral civil proceeding, particularly where the object of the collateral action was to compel an additional allocation of public resources, which the Court found to be a properly legislative prerogative. Two Justices dissented. They were of the view that violations of the right to counsel were actionable in contexts other than claims for post-conviction relief, including a civil action such as that brought by plaintiffs. While recognizing that choices between competing social priorities are ordinarily for the Legislature, this did not, in the dissenters' judgment, excuse the judiciary from its obligation to provide a remedy for violations of constitutional rights (id. at 95), especially when the alleged violations were "so interwoven with, and necessarily implicate[d], the proper functioning of the court system itself" (at 96).
Plaintiffs have appealed as of right from the Appellate Division's order pursuant to CPLR 5601 (a) and (b) (1). We now reinstate the action, albeit with some substantial qualifications upon its scope.
Defendants' claim that the action is not justiciable rests principally on two theories: first, that there is no cognizable claim for ineffective assistance of counsel apart from one seeking relief from a conviction, and second, that recognition of a claim for systemic relief of the sort plaintiffs seek will involve the courts in the performance of properly legislative functions, most notably determining how public resources are to be allocated.
The first of these theories is rooted in case law conditioning relief for constitutionally ineffective assistance upon findings that attorney performance, when viewed in its total, case specific aspect, has both fallen below the standard of objective reasonableness (see Strickland v Washington, 466 US 668, 687-688 ), and resulted in prejudice, either with respect to the outcome of the proceeding (id. at 694) or, under this Court's somewhat less outcome oriented standard of "meaningful assistance," to the defendant's right to a fair trial (People v Benevento, 91 NY2d 708, 713-714 ). Defendants reason that the prescribed, deferential (see Strickland, 466 US at 689; Benevento, 91 NY2d at 712) and highly context sensitive inquiry into the adequacy and particular effect of counsel's performance, cannot occur until a prosecution has concluded in a conviction, and that, once there is a conviction, the appropriate avenues of relief are direct appeals and the various other established means of challenging a conviction, such as CPL 440 motions and petitions for writs of habeas corpus or coram nobis. They urge, in essence, that the present plaintiffs can, based upon their ongoing prosecutions, possess no ripe claim of ineffective assistance and that any ineffective assistance claims that might eventually be brought by them would, given the nature of the claim, have to be individually asserted and determined; they argue that a finding of constitutionally deficient performance -- one necessarily rooted in the particular circumstances of an individual case -- cannot serve as a predicate for systemic relief. Indeed, they remind us that the Supreme Court in Strickland has noted pointedly that "the purpose of the effective assistance guarantee of the Sixth Amendment is not to improve the quality of legal representation, although that is a goal of considerable importance to the legal system[,] . . . [but rather] to ensure that criminal defendants receive a fair trial" (466 US at 689).
These arguments possess a measure of merit. A fair reading of Strickland and our relevant state precedents supports defendants' contention that effective assistance is a judicial construct designed to do no more than protect an individual defendant's right to a fair adjudication; it is not a concept capable of expansive application to remediate systemic deficiencies. The cases in which the concept has been explicated are in this connection notable for their intentional omission of any broadly applicable defining performance standards. Indeed, Strickland is clear that articulation of any standard more specific than that of objective reasonableness is neither warranted by the Sixth Amendment nor compatible with its objectives:
"More specific guidelines are not appropriate. The Sixth Amendment refers simply to 'counsel,' not specifying particular requirements of effective assistance. It relies instead on the legal profession's maintenance of standards sufficient to justify the law's presumption that counsel will fulfill the role in the adversary process that the Amendment envisions. The proper measure of attorney performance remains simply reasonableness under prevailing professional norms ... In any case presenting an ineffectiveness claim, the performance inquiry must be whether counsel's assistance was reasonable considering all the circumstances ... No particular set of detailed rules for counsel's conduct can satisfactorily take account of the variety of circumstances faced by defense counsel or the range of legitimate decisions regarding how best to represent a criminal defendant. Any such set of rules would interfere with the constitutionally protected independence of counsel and restrict the wide latitude counsel must have in making tactical decisions. Indeed, the existence of detailed guidelines for representation could distract counsel from the overriding mission of vigorous advocacy of the defendant's cause" (466 US at 688-689 [internal citations omitted]). We too have for similar reasons eschewed the articulation of more specific, generally applicable performance standards for judging the effectiveness of counsel in the context of determining whether constitutionally mandated representation has been provided (see People v Benevento, 91 NY at 712; People v Baldi, 54 NY2d 137, 146-147 ). This is not to say that performance standards are not highly relevant in assuring that constitutionally effective assistance is provided and in judging whether in a particular case an attorney's performance has been deficient, only that such standards do not and cannot usefully define the Sixth Amendment-based concept of effective assistance. While the imposition of such standards may be highly salutary, it is not under Strickland appropriate as an exercise in Sixth Amendment jurisprudence.
Having said this, however, we would add the very important caveat that Strickland's approach is expressly premised on the supposition that the fundamental underlying right to representation under Gideon has been enabled by the State in a manner that would justify the presumption that the standard of objective reasonableness will ordinarily be satisfied (see Strickland, 466 US at 687-689, supra). The questions properly raised in this Sixth Amendment-grounded action, we think, go not to whether ineffectiveness has assumed systemic dimensions, but rather to whether the State has met its foundational obligation under Gideon to provide legal representation.
Inasmuch as general prescriptive relief is unavailable and indeed incompatible with the adjudication of claims alleging constitutionally ineffective assistance of counsel, it follows that plaintiffs' claims for prospective systemic relief cannot stand if their gravamen is only that attorneys appointed for them have not, so far, afforded them meaningful and effective representation. While it is defendants' position, and was evidently that of the Appellate Division majority, that the complaint contains only performance-based claims for ineffective assistance, our examination of the pleading leads us to a different conclusion.
According to the complaint, ten of the 20 plaintiffs --two from Washington, two from Onondaga, two from Ontario and four from Schuyler County -- were altogether without representation at the arraignments held in their underlying criminal proceedings. Eight of these unrepresented plaintiffs were jailed after bail had been set in amounts they could not afford. It is alleged that the experience of these plaintiffs is illustrative of what is a fairly common practice in the aforementioned counties of arraigning defendants without counsel and leaving them, particularly when accused of relatively low level offenses, unrepresented in subsequent proceedings where pleas are taken and other critically important legal transactions take place. One of these plaintiffs remained unrepresented for some five months and it is alleged that the absence of clear and uniform guidelines reasonably related to need has commonly resulted in denials of representation to indigent defendants based on the subjective judgments of individual jurists.
In addition to the foregoing allegations of outright non-representation, the complaint contains allegations to the effect that although lawyers were eventually nominally appointed for plaintiffs, they were unavailable to their clients -- that they conferred with them little, if at all, were often completely unresponsive to their urgent inquiries and requests from jail, sometimes for months on end, waived important rights without consulting them, and ultimately appeared to do little more on their behalf than act as conduits for plea offers, some of which purportedly were highly unfavorable. It is repeatedly alleged that counsel missed court appearances, and that when they did appear they were not prepared to proceed, often because they were entirely new to the case, the matters having previously been handled by other similarly unprepared counsel.*fn1 There are also allegations that the counsel appointed for at least one of the plaintiffs was seriously conflicted and thus unqualified to undertake the representation.
The allegations of the complaint must at this stage of the litigation be deemed true and construed in plaintiffs' favor, affording them the benefit of every reasonable inference (Leon v Martinez, 84 NY2d 83, 87-88 ), the very limited object being to ascertain whether any cognizable claim for relief is made out (id.). If there is a discernible claim, that is where the inquiry must end; the difficulty of its proof is not the present concern. The above summarized allegations, in our view, state cognizable Sixth Amendment claims.
It is clear that a criminal defendant, regardless of wherewithal, is entitled to "'the guiding hand of counsel at every step in the proceedings against him'" (Gideon v Wainwright, 372 US at 345, quoting Powell v Alabama, 287 US 45, 68-69 ). The right attaches at arraignment (see Rothgery v Gillespie County, __ US __, 128 S Ct 2578 ) and entails the presence of counsel at each subsequent "critical" stage of the proceedings (Montejo v Louisiana, __ US __, 129 S Ct 2079 ). As is here relevant, arraignment itself must under the circumstances alleged be deemed a critical stage since, even if guilty pleas were not then elicited from the presently named plaintiffs,*fn2 a circumstance which would undoubtedly require the "critical stage" label (see Coleman v Alabama, 399 US 1, 9 ), it is clear from the complaint that plaintiffs' pretrial liberty interests were on that occasion regularly adjudicated (see also CPL 180.10 ) with most serious consequences, both direct and collateral, including the loss of employment and housing, and inability to support and care for particularly needy dependents. There is no question that "a bail hearing is a critical stage of the State's criminal process" (Higazy v FBI Agent Michael Templeton, 505 F3d 161, 172 [2d Cir 2007] [internal quotation marks and citation omitted]).
Recognizing the crucial importance of arraignment and the extent to which a defendant's basic liberty and due process interests may then be affected, CPL 180.10 (3) expressly provides for "the right to the aid of counsel at the arraignment and at every subsequent stage of the action" and forbids a court from going forward with the proceeding without counsel for the defendant, unless the defendant has knowingly agreed to proceed in counsel's absence (CPL 180.10 ).*fn3 Contrary to defendants' suggestion and that of the dissent, nothing in the statute may be read to justify the conclusion that the presence of defense counsel at arraignment is ever dispensable, except at a defendant's informed option, when matters affecting the defendant's pretrial liberty or ability subsequently to defend against the charges are to be decided. Nor is there merit to defendants' suggestion that the Sixth Amendment right to counsel is not yet fully implicated (see Rothgery, 128 S Ct at 2589).
The cases cited by the dissent in which the allegedly consequential event at arraignment was the entry of a not guilty plea (United States ex rel. Caccio v Fay, 350 F2d 214, 215 [2d Cir 1965]; United States ex rel. Combs v Denno, 357 F2d 809, 812 [2d Cir 1966]; United States ex rel Hussey v Fay, 220 F Supp 562 [SD NY 1963]; Holland v Allard, 2005 WL 2786909 [ED NY 2005]), do not stand for the proposition that counsel, as a general matter, is optional at arraignment. Indeed, such a proposition would plainly be untenable since arraignments routinely, and in New York as a matter of statutory design, encompass matters affecting a defendant's liberty and ability to defend against the charges. The cited cases rather stand for the very limited proposition that where it happens that what occurs at arraignment does not affect a defendant's ultimate adjudication, a defendant is not on the ground of non-representation entitled to a reversal of his or her conviction. Plaintiffs here do not seek ...