Access to Justice

  • January 10, 2013

    by Amanda Simon

    This year marks the 50th anniversary of Gideon vs. Wainwright, a landmark case in which the U.S. Supreme Court reaffirmed the right to counsel for criminal defendants under the Sixth Amendment. To kick off our work on this important anniversary, ACS has released a new Issue Brief analyzing five Supreme Court decisions from last term that affect the right to counsel. The brief “Are We Closer to Fulfilling Gideon’s Promise?: The Effects of the Supreme Court’s ‘Right-to-Counsel Term’” was written by Christopher Durocher, government affairs counsel at The Constitution Project.

    In its unanimous opinion on March 18, 1963, the Court ruled “any person haled into court, who is too poor to hire a lawyer, cannot be assured a fair trial unless counsel is provided for him.”

    Durocher explains why the most recent Court session expands on Gideon in the Issue Brief, writing“Supreme Court handed down decisions in five cases that open the door to expanding and better protecting the availability of effective counsel in both the pre-trial and post-conviction stages. These decisions recognized the realities of our 21st century criminal justice system and proved that the Court’s last term deserved the sobriquet the ‘Right-to-Counsel Term.’”

    However, when it comes to indigent defense, Durocher, also notes the strain on our system, noting, “It is well-documented that indigent defense providers across the nation are overworked and have too few resources.”

  • January 2, 2013

    by John Schachter

    Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln” has earned rave reviews, myriad award nominations and more than $132 million at the box office. All this for a 2½ hour movie about politics. While other films with government and politics at their core often struggle to draw sizable audiences, “Lincoln” has transcended the genre and demonstrated mass appeal. That’s likely because of the superb acting and script – and the moral force behind the film’s focus, the fight to end slavery in America once and for all..

    Tuesday, January 1, marked the 150th anniversary of the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation, a document Fredrick Douglass praised as “the most important document ever issued by an American president,” according to historian Eric Foner (in his book The Fiery Trial).

    Douglass was no Lincoln apologist; he recognized the great man’s flaws and imperfections. But Douglass also got to know Lincoln and appreciate the great pressures under which he operated. When it came to the Emancipation Proclamation, Douglass understood the content, the context and the confines. In his “Oration in Memory of Abraham Lincoln,” delivered at the unveiling of the Freedmen's Monument in Washington D.C. in memory of Lincoln, on April 14, 1876, Douglass said:

    “Can any colored man, or any white man friendly to the freedom of all men, ever forget the night which followed the first day of January, 1863, when the world was to see if Abraham Lincoln would prove to be as good as his word? I shall never forget that memorable night, when in a distant city I waited and watched at a public meeting, with three thousand others not less anxious than myself, for the word of deliverance which we have heard read today. Nor shall I ever forget the outburst of joy and thanksgiving that rent the air when the lightning brought to us the emancipation proclamation. In that happy hour we forgot all delay, and forgot all tardiness, forgot that the President had bribed the rebels to lay down their arms by a promise to withhold the bolt which would smite the slave-system with destruction; and we were thenceforward willing to allow the President all the latitude of time, phraseology, and every honorable device that statesmanship might require for the achievement of a great and beneficent measure of liberty and progress.”

    Though sectional conflicts over slavery certainly contributed to the war, ending slavery was not an initial goal. The National Archives notes that that “changed on September 22, 1862, when President Lincoln issued his Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, which stated that slaves in those states or parts of states still in rebellion as of January 1, 1863, would be declared free.” Just 100 days later, seeing no action from the rebelling states, Lincoln issued the official Emancipation Proclamation declaring “that all persons held as slaves” within the rebellious areas “are, and henceforward shall be free.” While the proclamation did not end slavery in the United States, it did fundamentally transform the character of the war and added moral force to the Union cause while strengthening the Union both politically and militarily.

    Eric Foner wrote in The New York Times that to some extent the Emancipation Proclamation “embodied a double emancipation: for the slaves, since it ensured that if the Union emerged victorious, slavery would perish, and for Lincoln himself, for whom it marked the abandonment of his previous assumptions about how to abolish slavery and the role blacks would play in post-emancipation American life.”

    Across the nation, celebrants have many opportunities to appreciate the value and meaning of the Emancipation Proclamation. The Library of Congress is displaying Lincoln’s first handwritten draft, on display for six weeks starting Jan. 3 in "The Civil War in America" exhibit. And the National Museum of African American History and Culture at the Smithsonian has an exhibit called "Changing America," which recounts both the 1863 emancipation and the 1963 March on Washington for Civil Rights. The exhibit includes a rare signed copy of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution that abolished slavery and is the centerpiece of the Spielberg film. What a great opportunity to see and appreciate the reality of what's been portrayed on the movie screen!

  • December 18, 2012
    Guest Post

    by Laura Abel, Deputy Director, National Center for Access to Justice at Cardozo Law School

    Recently the Justice Department’s groundbreaking civil rights work received a boost when a federal district court allowed it to proceed with its civil rights case against the Maricopa County, Arizona sheriff, Joe Arpaio. The Justice Department’s suit alleges that the Sheriff is harming the Latino community in a dozen mean-spirited and unlawful ways, including:  race-based stops, searches and arrests; the denial of health care and other services in the county jail for prisoners with limited proficiency in English; and retaliation against people who dare to complain. The Department’s complaint provides some insight into the human cost. For example, it tells the story of four Latino men, whose car was stopped even though they had not violated any traffic laws:  the officers “ordered the men out of the car, zip-tied them, and made them sit on the curb for an hour before releasing all of them.”  And it explains that in the county jail, officers “routinely make announcements only in English” about such fundamental things as the “time … to go outdoors, receive clothing, or eat.”

    Investigations into serious civil rights abuses have been one of the hallmarks of Attorney General Eric Holder’s tenure. The Justice Department’s investigations into language access problems in state courts and law enforcement agencies around the country have been particularly successful, leading to major improvements in many states.  As a result of civil rights investigations in Colorado and Rhode Island, for instance, the courts in both states agreed to provide interpreters for limited English proficient individuals in all civil cases. 

  • October 19, 2012

    by Jeremy Leaming

    Too many progressives have faltered in highlighting the impact nine justices on the nation’s highest court can have on the lives of millions of Americans. The Constitutional Accountability Center’s Simon Lazarus lays the case out over at CAC’s Text and History Blog, noting that during the second presidential debate an opportunity was missed to show how the conservative justices of the Roberts Court increasingly advance corporate interests, while making life tougher on individuals.

    As Lazarus notes, a question from the town hall audience prompted the candidates try and address the ongoing lack of pay equity – women still earn significantly less than their male counterparts. President Obama responded by highlighting his signing of the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act. The law was named after the Alabama women who struggled to hold Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company accountable for paying her far less than men at the company doing the same work. After Ledbetter (pictured) sued the company, a jury found in her favor and awarded her hundreds of thousands of dollars in back pay. But the company appealed and the case eventually reached the high court in 2007. The rightwing bloc of the Supreme Court in Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire reversed course and found that Ledbetter could not move forward with her lawsuit under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 seeking equal pay for equal work. The rightwing justices essentially said that Ledbetter had waited too long to bring the action, even though she did not discover the discrimination until her retirement from the Goodyear Tire plant.

    During this year’s ACS National Convention, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who lodged a dissent in Ledbetter, said the decision was “entirely out of touch with the real world of work.”

    The Ledbetter Act trumps the high court’s out-of-touch majority opinion by allowing for a realistic timeframe for workers to bring employment discrimination cases.

    But Lazarus says progressives, including the president, have failed to “take a cue from Senator [Patrick] Leahy, who has held numerous hearings over the past four years to ‘shine a light on how the Supreme Court’s decisions affect Americans’ everyday lives.’”

  • October 17, 2012

    by Jeremy Leaming

    Senate Republicans have made a mess of the judicial nominations process, ensuring that the road from nomination to confirmation during President Obama’s first term is incredibly long, arduous and unnecessarily divisive. A likely reason for the judicial nominations debacle centers on Republicans' desire to keep the federal bench tilted as far rightward as possible. So they obstruct judicial selections, keep as many seats open as possible in hopes their Party captures the Senate and White House in November.

    But as The New York Times noted in an Oct. 17 editorial at some point very soon the political nonsense needs to stop. It’s obvious. But take a look at, where you’ll see that the federal court system has nearly 80 vacancies, with more than 30 of those vacancies deemed “emergency vacancies” by the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts of the federal bench. So as the editorial notes, access to justice continues to be a tougher endeavor since courts are not running efficiently. As The Times puts it:

    The holdups have cost Americans dearly — in justice delayed (it now generally takes two years to get a federal civil trial) and justice denied. It is time to adopt a more efficient, less political approach to district court confirmations. The courts must be brought to full strength so they can meet the demands for justice. The next president and the new Senate should make reforming the confirmation process a paramount priority.

    Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has been a leading character in the effort to scuttle the president’s judicial selections, largely for political reasons. Early in the Obama administration, McConnell (pictured) told a gathering at the Heritage Foundation that his Party’s “top political priority” was to deny Obama a second term. If McConnell’s Party can swing that feat, they’ll have plenty of seats to fill and the ability to keep the federal bench tilted rightward.