Justice for all: A talk with public defender Andrew Kossover

New Paltz Attorney and Ulster County Public Defender Andrew Kossover. (Photo by Lauren Thomas)

In the 13 years since Andrew Kossover was first appointed Ulster County Public Defender, he’s seen a lot of changes impact that office. Most of them are the result of more money being spent to ensure that anyone who needs an attorney should receive quality legal representation. This is a good thing, but it also means he doesn’t spend quite as much time in the courtroom as he used to. His first job was working in the legal aid society in New York City, he’s served on the board of the society in Orange County, and he’s “always had one foot in public defense.” Today, the administration of an office of 20 attorneys and their support staff makes it difficult for him to personally handle complex cases like homicides, but he goes out of his way to keep his courtroom skills sharp regardless.

The notion of legal representation for anyone facing criminal charges became the law of the land with the 1963 Gideon v Wainwright Supreme Court decision. There are now three ways in which the right to an attorney is typically provided: assigned private attorneys to do the work, contracting with a nonprofit legal aid society, or by keeping it entirely in-house through a public defender’s office. All versions are paid for with tax dollars, roughly two-thirds of which comes from state funds with the rest being paid from the county treasury. In Ulster County, anyone a judge determines can’t afford an attorney gets represented by Kossover or an attorney working under him. That can happen in any town or village justice court, county or state supreme court, or even in family court when issues of custody and parental rights are in play. These attorneys also appear at the county jail for bail revocation hearings, and one works solely in the appellate division.

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Kossover is proud of the quality of representation provided, and the resources they can bring to bear. His office operates completely independently, although some of the people they are asked to represent are initially suspicious of anyone linked to the justice system. That reticence is understandable, he says: “Few others have afforded them respect, and we’re the liaison to the whole criminal justice system.” Treating all their clients with dignity builds a level of trust, but it can take time for someone who has never had a positive experience to shed the feeling that even public defenders are “simply tracking them for incarceration.”

“Our clients are getting the very highest quality of advocacy on their behalf,” he said, and his only regret is that people who are denied access to the public defender because they make a bit too much money probably aren’t getting representation he feels that they too deserve. There’s a sign in the lobby of his Kingston office which proclaims that “a lukewarm lawyer is just another oppressor.”

It’s clear he values his role in the system of justice, saying that this is the office where people get second chances. “Compassion is a wonderful, essential, and beneficial part of our criminal justice system and democracy.”

Sometimes, lawyers are lukewarm not because they lack passion, but because they lack resources. Overworked public defenders cannot provide the same quality of representation. Kossover made this plain with an exaggerated example: “If I have only five cases a year, I’m going to be able to devote significantly more attention to each one than if I have a hundred.” It’s unlikely any attorney in his office will ever have just five cases, but in recent years a court settlement guaranteed more money for all forms of public defense in New York. The case, Hurrell-Harring v. New York, only impacted five counties, but the repercussions have been felt in all 62 counties, diminishing the fact that overworked public defenders don’t always have enough time to work in each assigned case. Kossover is expecting his attorneys’ caseloads to be reduced as an indirect result of that settlement.

“By protecting our clients’ constitutional rights and freedoms, we protect all our constitutional rights and freedoms,” Kossover said. Through changes stemming from legislative action and court cases like this one, he sees his ability to defend those rights and freedoms rising closer to where they ought to be.

Nevertheless, Kossover is appreciative of the level of county support provided to his office, and specifically called out former executive Mike Hein and current executive Pat Ryan as deserving gratitude for keeping the funding flowing. Each of them “understands the importance of the public defender and how vital it is in order to have a fair system of justice in Ulster County, and to give voice to those who otherwise might not be heard.”

State legislators have also passed a package of reforms this year which Kossover expects to make it a lot easier for all defense attorneys as of January 1. Getting the most press has been the curtailing of the use of bail, but what excites Kossover are changes to the rules of discovery, or how information is shared. The decades-old rules in New York leave defense attorneys at a considerable disadvantage because they don’t receive most evidence — witness lists, documents, videos and the like — until the trial itself. That means an attorney might be handed thousands of pages of information within which might be the evidence to exonerate a defendant, just as the trial starts. Prosecutors must make the decision as to whether evidence is exculpatory (favorable to the defense), and thus must be shared earlier. Under the new rules, all evidence must be shared.

This is also a time when big changes are happening locally. Holley Carnright, a former member of Kossover’s office, is not seeking a new term as district attorney. At the same time, county court judge Donald Williams is also stepping down, opening up an elected seat with a ten-year term. Ryan is new to the position of the county executive and there will be a new comptroller elected this year; decisions in those offices could also impact what happens in the courts, albeit less directly. In New Paltz, where Kossover maintains a private practice with his wife and law partner, a town justice is about to be replaced. For the record, Kossover doesn’t want the job, because he is right where his passion demands he be.

It’s never a good time to be brought up on criminal charges, but it appears that defendants’ rights are going to be shored up more strongly than ever before. For someone with a passion to guarantee everyone gets a fair trial, like Kossover, it’s a good time indeed.

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