by E. Sebastian Arduengo
Last month, U.S. Senator Patrick Leahy (D–Vt.) reintroduced the Gideon’s Promise Act of 2013 to address the problems plaguing the indigent defense system which have left the promise of Gideon v. Wainwright increasingly hollow for the poorest people in our society. The act would require states to use existing federal funds to improve the administration of criminal justice in a comprehensive, strategic way, and to collaborate with the Department of Justice and local authorities to devise a plan for adequately addressing indigent defense needs. If states refuse to comply then the Department of Jusice would have the power to take them to court to make sure that they are meeting their constitutional obligations.
But Leahy’s bill doesn’t go nearly far enough to address budget-related failings in our criminal justice system. With sequestration at the federal level, and years of budget cutbacks at the state level, we’re now to the point where years of political indifference to funding the judicial branch has affected the basic operation of the courts and the services that we expect them to provide.
This is a crisis that’s reached such endemic proportions that Chief Justice John Roberts made it a focus of last year’s state of the judiciary report, where he made the case that the federal courts were already being as cost-effective as they could possibly be, and warned that “significant and prolonged shortfall[s] in judicial funding would inevitably result in the delay or denial of justice for the people the courts serve.”
That scenario is already playing out in state and local courts across the country.
The effect of over a billion dollars of cuts in the last four years has been nothing short of devastating to the Los Angeles Superior Court system. Court officials plan to shutter a dozen courthouses and make an indeterminate number of staff layoffs. The only thing these courthouses will be used for now is for collecting traffic fines and administrative functions. The actual business of dispensing justice will be triaged at the remaining courthouses in the county, “where certain types of cases are heard at each remaining courthouse.”