Stephen Bright

  • September 23, 2013

    by Jeremy Leaming

    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.

    Poor litigants, criminal or civil, more often than not are treated unequally before the law. “Despite our perpetual boasts, we turn out to be the effective adversary to equality; outposts, comforter, companion, and the better to marginalization,” Nichol said.

    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.”

  • September 20, 2013
     
    During a week when many groups and individuals are celebrating the signing of the U.S. Constitution -- September 17 is Constitution Day -- it is appropriate to take note of how far we have fallen short of fulfilling certain fundamental rights promised in our governing document.
     
    As Dean Erwin Chemerinsky noted in this ACSblog post, we are not just celebrating the signing of a parchment, we are actually taking note of how the Constitution has "been interpreted and implemented over the course of American history."
     
    There are examples of where the judiciary has misinterpreted the broad language of the Constitution or where states have faltered or failed in implementation of constitutional mandates, but let's take one example that provides a stark picture of a nation failing to live up to a promise of genuine equality before the law. Let's look at the Sixth Amendment's right to counsel.
     
    Fifty years ago this year, in a landmark opinion, Gideon v. Wainwright, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Sixth Amendment's right to counsel means that people in danger of losing liberty have a right to counsel, even if they cannot afford it. In his majority opinion, Justice Hugo Black observed, "The right of one charged with crime to counsel may not be deemed fundamental and essential to fair trials in some countries, but it is in ours. From the very beginning, our state and national constitutions and laws have laid great emphasis on procedural and substantive safeguards designed to assure fair trials before impartial tribunals in which every defendant stands equal before the law. This noble ideal cannot be realized if the poor man charged with crime has to face his accusers without a lawyer to assist him."
     
  • March 22, 2013

    by Heejin Hwang

    “Clarence Earl Gideon, defend yourself.” With those words fifty years ago, Abe Fortas, who represented Clarence Gideon’s appeal in front of the Supreme Court, highlighted the isolating circumstances regularly faced by indigent defendants without representation. But upon its unanimous ruling in Gideon v. Wainwright, the Supreme Court foundthat all citizens -- rich or poor -- were constitutionally guaranteed a right to counsel, declaring that no one facing criminal charges would have to navigate the legal system alone.

    As we commemorate the legacy of Gideon this week, however, our criminal justice system continues to abandon defendants, and defenders, alike. Delivering one of the keynotes at ACS’s inaugural Student Convention in early March, Stephen Bright, President and General Counsel of the Southern Center for Human Rights, spoke of his clients’ hopelessness. For example, he noted the people with cases before the Texas Supreme Court, 92 percent of them do not have a lawyer.  One homeless woman on trial, Bright said, chose to go to jail, because at least then she would be fed and “sheltered.”

    As noted yesterday during a national ACS symposium on Gideon several experts said too many states have proven obstacles to ensuring Gideon’s promise. Recently, Attorney General Eric Holder declared that “America’s indigent defense systems exist in a state of crisis” and announced $1.8 million in funding to “improve access to criminal legal services and strengthen indigent defense across the nation.” This is promising, but more action is needed to ensure that states are aware of the funding and spend it appropriately. From 2005 to 2010, the Department of Justice administered 13 grant programs to support indigent defense systems; yet, a 2012 Government Accountability Office (GAO) report stated that “among the 9 grants …, two-thirds or more of state, local, and tribal respondents … reported that they did not use these funds for the specified purpose, due to competing priorities.” Moreover, “no more than 54 percent of grantees or public defender offices responding to GAO’s surveys were aware that such funding could be used to support indigent defense.”

    ACS’s inaugural Student Convention brought together nearly 200 law students from across the country and focused on the state of indigent defense 50 years after Gideon.  Speakers and practitioners celebrated the landmark case but also took an unabashedly introspective look at themselves, rallying their colleagues to take their constitutional responsibility more seriously.

  • July 13, 2010

    The nation's indigent defense system is woefully inadequate and calls out for a strong federal response, writes Professor Cara H. Drinan in an Issue Brief released today by ACS. Drinan's Issue Brief, available here, proposes federal legislation to help overcome a "national crisis in indigent defense services." At the moment, Drinan asserts, many states are far from meeting their obligations under the Constitution's Sixth Amendment.

    During the 2010 ACS National Convention, Stephen B. Bright, president and senior counsel for the Southern Center for Human Rights, participated in a panel discussion that focused on increasing a federal role in improving indigent defense. Following the discussion, Bright talked with ACSblog about indigent defense services nationwide, calling the situation extremely lopsided in the favor of prosecutors. He compared the situation to "literally like the New York Yankees," playing a little-league softball team. "In many parts of the country we don't have a system," Bright said. In many states, there are no public defenders offices and instead judges appoint lawyers, often overworked, to represent poor defendants. In those cases, Bright continued, the lawyers loyalty is often to the judges who appoint them and not to defendants.

    Bright said greater independence, more structure and resources are needed to turn the situation around. Bright's interview is below. Video of the panel discussion, "The Federal Role in Improving Indigent Criminal Defense," is available here.