Leading Constitutional Law Scholar Laurence Tribe to Lead DOJ Indigent Defense Initiative

February 26, 2010
The preeminent constitutional scholar and ACS Board of Advisors member Laurence H. Tribe will join the Department of Justice to lead "an effort focused on increasing legal access for the poor," The Washington Post and National Public Radio (NPR) report.

Tribe, the Carl M. Loeb University Professor at Harvard Law School, will serve as "a senior counselor for access to justice," The Post reported. NPR noted in its coverage that "one of the top constitutional lawyers in the country is taking a leave of absence from Harvard to spearhead" the "Access to Justice" initiative. The announcement of the position follows a recent Justice Department "National Symposium on Indigent Defense," which explored ways to improve the nation's faltering indigent defense system.

Tribe (pictured) will start work at DOJ next week and "will coordinate with judges and lawyers across the country with the goal of finding ways to help people who cannot afford a lawyer - a circumstance known in legal terms as indigent defense." Listen to NPR's full story here.

In 1963, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in its landmark Gideon v. Wainwright decision that the Sixth Amendment provides a fundamental right to counsel for defendants, including those unable to afford legal representation. Writing for the majority in Gideon, Justice Hugo Black maintained, the Sixth Amendment means that "in federal courts, counsel must be provided for defendants unable to employ counsel unless that right is completely and intelligently waived."

The problems besetting indigent defense were highlighted during the Justice Department's symposium by senior DOJ leaders who drew "attention to the large caseloads handled by public defenders and other challenges in providing legal services to low-income defendants." Last fall, The Post reported on the increased need for legal aid programs in Maryland, the District of Columbia and Virginia coinciding with the decline in funding for the services. The situation, the newspaper reported, had become so dire in Maryland "that the chief judge of Maryland's Court of Appeals has urged lawyers to donate time or money to preserve" the legal aid programs.

Tribe has "served as lead counsel in 35 cases before the Supreme Court, testified before Congress dozens of times and wrote a major treatise on constitutional law," The Post notes. "Several of his pro bono cases involved victim rights, including representations of migrant workers injured by large farming companies, tenant farmers in Hawaii who sought land reforms and a group of plaintiffs suing cigarette companies for deliberate deception about the products' health effects."

For more on the DOJ's indigent defense symposium see a recent ACSblog guest post by Virginia Sloan, The Constitution Project, and Cait Clarke, Equal Justice Works. "While funding for indigent defense has increased since Gideon was decided, funding is woefully inadequate and the current economic crisis confronting many state and local governments is exacerbating the situation tremendously," the two write.