Fifty years ago, a unanimous Supreme Court held in Gideon v. Wainwright that “in our adversary system of criminal justice, any person hauled into court, who is too poor to hire a lawyer, cannot be assured a fair trial unless counsel is provided for him.” This holding was described in the opinion to be “an obvious truth,” a recognition that Gideon’s clear and powerful proclamation – protecting the fundamental human right to liberty – is one that resonates with us all.
But the mandate was not self-executing, and far too little planning or coordination was undertaken to translate the legal pronouncement into consistent practice. The fundamental constitutional right of the Sixth Amendment was left to fall victim to the inertia of the “machinery of criminal justice” – a counterweight poignantly exposed in Gideon -- and the political realities of each state and county. The failure to act on a federal level has reversed the tides of history to the very problem Gideon attempted to correct. That is: local political entities cannot be solely relied upon to ensure the constitutional right to counsel is properly structured and funded. As a result, the Attorney General declared on the anniversary of the Gideon decision: “It’s time to reclaim Gideon’s petition – and resolve to confront the obstacles facing indigent defense providers.”
The criminal justice system is an eco-system in which the component parts are inextricably intertwined. If police officers arrest more individuals, prosecutors have more cases to process and public defense organizations have more people for whom to provide legal representation. However, while other system actors have mechanisms to prioritize cases or to exercise discretion over which cases to pursue, the Constitution affords public defenders no such “release valve” for controlling workload. This reality exacerbates funding inequities that exist at the state and local levels.
“[I]n our adversary system of criminal justice, any person hauled into court, who is too poor to hire a lawyer, cannot be assured a fair trial unless counsel is provided for him.” Fifty years ago this past March, Justice Hugo Black wrote those words for a unanimous Supreme Court in holding that the Sixth Amendment provided Clarence Earl Gideon with the right to counsel, despite his indigent status, as he stood trial in Florida for allegedly breaking and entering a Panama City pool hall.
Gideon v. Wainwright forever changed American jurisprudence, ensuring that guilt or innocence in a criminal matter would be fairly adjudicated, regardless of a defendant’s economic circumstance. But as states and the federal government have dramatically slashed their budgets over the last several years, the promise enshrined by Gideon has come under increased threat as public defenders have seen theirbudgets bear a significant brunt of these cuts.
Congressman Ted Deutch (D-Fla.) introduced this week a bill to help remedy the effect of these cuts and ensure the promise of Gideon. Entitled the “National Center for the Right to Counsel Act,” the measure would establish a private, non-profit center to provide “financial support to supplement…funding for public defense systems” as well as provide “financial and substantive support for training programs that aim to improve the delivery of legal services to indigent defendants.” The Act would also create geographically-based “regional backup service centers” which would provide public defenders with access to investigators and sentencing mitigation experts as well as information on available financial grants. A nine-person “State Advisory Council” would be formed in each state to monitor the quality of public defender services and ensure compliance with the Act.
UNC Law School Professor Gene Nichol earlier this year at a Harvard symposium on the legacy of Gideon v. Wainwright and the state of funding for indigent defense blasted the legal system’s treatment of the poor.
This year marks the 50th Anniversary of Gideon v. Wainwright, the landmark Supreme Court case that held the Sixth Amendment’s right to counsel means that criminal defendants have a constitutional right to counsel whether they can afford it or not. That case placed a mandate on the States to ensure that poor criminal defendants are provided legal representation. But as Nichol and others have noted, such as ACS’s Caroline Fredrickson, too many States have fallen woefully short of ensuring that poor criminal defendants have access to competent counsel.
In an interview earlier this year with ACSblog, Stephen Bright, head of the Southern Center for Human Rights, provided his thoughts, in some ways similar to Nichol’s, about the state of indigent defense. Like Nichol, Bright noted the nation’s and legal profession’s callousness toward the poor.
Bright (pictured) said, “One would think that if the court said this is what the Sixth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, the right to counsel, that this is what it means – that the state has to provide a lawyer that the states would have done that. But Gideon has been treated as an unfunded mandate.”
So why have many States given short-shrift to funding of indigent defense services? Likely, Bright said, the answer lies with a society that has remained indifferent, at best, to poverty.
“When Robert F. Kennedy was attorney general, he said the poor person accused of a crime has no lobby,” Bright noted. “That’s exactly right. There’s no constituency.”
by G. Ben Cohen. Mr. Cohen is OF COUNSEL at The Capital Appeals Project. Cohen was VISITING LITIGATION COUNSEL at the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute in 2011.
On April 29, 2013, after briefing and oral argument on whether the State’s failure to fund counsel for a defendant should be weighed against the state for speedy trial purposes, five Justices of the U.S. Supreme Court turned a blind eye in Boyer v. Louisiana to the funding crisis in Louisiana’s public defender system and declined to address the seven year wait between Jonathan Boyer’s arrest and trial. On Boyer’s heels comes another case underscoring the unconscionable harms of the Bayou State’s decimated criminal justice system – which has depended on traffic tickets to fund the defense function.
On June 20, 2013 the Supreme Court will decide whether to grant certiorari in Michael Garcia v. Louisiana. The public defender office could not afford to adequately provide separate capital representation to Mr. Garcia and his two co-defendants. By law, however, the Public Defender could not represent all three defendants himself. Even the prosecutor informed the trial court at Mr. Garcia’s very first hearing that the multiple representation might pose a conflict of interest, but the judge left the Public Defender to work it out.
The Public Defender assigned all the capitally-certified attorneys from his office, including himself, to represent Mr. Garcia, and assigned lawyers who were not certified to represent defendants facing the death penalty to represent the two co-defendants. This refusal to hire outside counsel saved the public defender office from going bankrupt. It also prevented the state from seeking death against the two other defendants. But it meant that Mr. Garcia’s lawyer chose him as the only defendant against whom the State could seek the death penalty.
A federal judge in Los Angeles took a step recently to bolster the nation’s indigent defense system for some undocumented immigrants. It was an all-too-rare legal action to help the most vulnerable among us, and unlikely to be celebrated by opponents of immigration reform.
Gee said that mentally disabled plaintiffs do not have meaningful access to the legal proceedings against them without counsel. “Plaintiffs’ ability to exercise these rights is hindered by their mental incompetency, and the provision of competent representation able to navigate the proceedings is the only means by which they may invoke these rights,” the judge ruled in José Antonio Franco-González v. Holder.
As Bloomberg noted, federal agencies took action to ensure the measure would apply nationwide.
In an April 22 statement, the Departments of Justice and Homeland Security announced “a new nationwide policy for underrepresented immigration detainees with serious mental disorders or conditions that may render them mentally incompetent to represent themselves in immigration proceedings.”
In its landmark Gideon v. Wainwright opinion, the Supreme Court ruled that criminal defendants have a constitutional right, secured by the Sixth and Fourteenth Amendments, to legal representation even if they cannot afford it. During a recent symposium sponsored by the Harvard Law & Policy Review and ACS, UNC Law School Professor Gene Nichol argued that one of the legal system’s greatest failures, which mirror the nation’s overall treatment of the poor, is its ongoing inability to provide the most vulnerable among us competent legal help even in civil matters.