Public Defender Kayla Hardesty ‘16 Helps Make History in New York’s Highest Court

St. John's Law alumna Kayla Hardesty.
January 16, 2024

Good afternoon, Your Honors, and may it please the Court. Kayla Hardesty, Cortland County Public Defenders Office, for the appellant, Michael Bay.

With that brief introduction, Kayla Hardesty began her first-ever oral argument before the New York Court of Appeals in People v. Bay, a criminal matter she had handled since its inception. In under an hour, she would deftly make the case for overturning the lower court’s order and getting the accusatory instrument against her client dismissed because the prosecution failed to meet its discovery obligations.

When the Court issued a unanimous decision for her client, it was a professional milestone for Hardesty, who has served as a public defender for the better part of a decade. It was also—and remains—a cause for celebration among proponents of discovery reform in New York. “The Court’s decision in Bay is a major victory for transparency in our criminal system, a vindication of the state legislature’s 2019 discovery reforms, and a rejection of the gamesmanship culture that denied the accused critical evidence against them,” says Professor Marty LaFalce, a former public defender who directs the Law School’s in-house Defense and Advocacy Clinic. “I’m thrilled that Kayla Hardesty, a St. John’s Law alumna, played such a critical role in litigating the case.” 

Reflecting on her hard work on Bay, Hardesty says: “It was an amazing experience. I devoted an enormous amount of time and effort learning the process, drafting the brief, and preparing for the argument on appeal. I was lucky enough to receive assistance with the entire process from the New York State Office of Indigent Legal Service—Statewide Appellate Support Center, who were incredibly knowledgeable and supportive. I felt that the law was on our side, so I’m excited that we now have precedent on the topic.”

Dedication to her clients and to the work of public defenders is a hallmark of Hardesty’s career, which got its start at St. John’s. She was an active member of the Frank S. Polestino Trial Advocacy Institute (PTAI) and interned at Queens Defenders during her 2L summer. “That internship and my participation in PTAI made me realize how much I love litigation and defending the rights of others, particularly those who are indigent and may not have access to as many resources as others,” she says, adding, “It’s really rewarding being able to stand up for the Constitution and help people at the same time.”

The summer internship led to a full-time position with Queens Defenders after graduation. It was a formative experience. “I learned so much being in court, drafting motions, and doing hearings and trials,” Hardesty shares. “I also had amazing supervising attorneys and coworkers that I still keep in contact with. I believe starting off my public defense career in such a diverse, high volume atmosphere like Queens, NY was the best preparation I could have received, and I’m so thankful that I was able to work there.”

Years later, when Hardesty took a job with the Cortland County Defenders Office, it was a homecoming of sorts for the Upstate New York native. It didn’t take long to acclimate to her new role. “Working in a small public defender’s office in a small area like Cortland is quite different from my prior experience at a large, New York City public defender’s office,” she says. “It’s a different pace and volume, but because we have fewer attorneys, the caseload is similar and the types of criminal cases we defend—misdemeanors, felonies, violent felonies—are similar. At a smaller office, attorneys are able to get more experience handling different areas of law, like family court, special proceedings, and appeals, which is what I enjoy most about my current role.”

With a clear passion for her vocation, Hardesty offers this advice to St. John’s aspiring public defenders: “If you push yourself to do new things that you’ve never done before and put in the time and effort, you may be surprised with how much you can accomplish. Getting hands on experience doing trials—even mock trials—is excellent preparation for a career as a public defender. You can get that type of experience through the Defense and Advocacy Clinic, trial advocacy courses, PTAI, and internships. The knowledge and skills you build will be invaluable, as they have been for me as I’ve forged a career path that is incredibly fulfilling.”