Dear Governor Cuomo:
As a New York State resident and a Democrat, I was dismayed to read that you vetoed a bipartisan bill passed by the legislature to reform the state’s woefully inadequate public-defender system. What’s even more disgraceful is that you let the legislature pass the bill back in June of last year and then sat on it, waiting until the last possible moment to announce your veto, to ensure that the legislative session would be over and there’d be no chance to override it until the next session. Whatever your objections to the bill, this was a cowardly tactic that betrays a bad-faith approach to governance.
Throughout the nation but in New York in particular, the Constitutional right to due process is little more than a bad joke. New York’s public-defender system is shamefully understaffed and underfunded, meaning that poor defendants facing life-destroying prison sentences get to meet with lawyers for only minutes, if that. Defendants lacking meaningful representation have lost jobs and homes while they’re forced to sit in jail awaiting a trial, even over the most trivial charges.By passing this reform, New York State could have become a progressive model for the nation. Instead, you’ve guaranteed that it will continue to be an embarrassment.
Your veto statement focused on the supposed costs of this bill, which is utterly beside the point. New York is a wealthy economic hub that’s more than capable of bearing this burden. Besides, even if providing counsel to the indigent accused is expensive, then that’s a cost that simply needs to be paid as the price for a fair and equitable justice system. The Constitution doesn’t permit states and localities to shirk their human-rights obligations just because it’s more expensive than doing nothing.
As social-justice movements like Black Lives Matter have shown, racial disparities and other inequities in the justice system are destined to be among the defining issues of our era. By vetoing this bill in such a way as to leave no room for negotiation, you’ve shown that you stand on the wrong side of that issue. If, as is widely rumored, you’re mulling a presidential run in 2020 or beyond, actions like these show that you’re out of step with your own party and behind the current of the times. You can be assured that the local activists and progressive campaigners whose support you’ll need will remember this.