Civil Legal Services

  • 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.”

  • June 18, 2013
    Guest Post

    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.

  • April 29, 2013

    by Jeremy Leaming

    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.

    But poverty in this country is not exclusive to documented Americans, neither are basic human rights. U.S. District Judge Dolly M. Gee, as Bloomberg reports, moved to address the glaring inequality when she recently ruled that three states must pay for legal counsel for mentally disabled immigrants who are detained for potential deportation.

    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.

  • April 23, 2013
    Guest Post

    by Vincent Imhoff, Managing Partner, Imhoff & Associates, P.C.

    Clarence Earl Gideon was about 50-years old when he was arrested in relation to the theft of money and wine from a pool hall in Panama City, Fla., in 1961. Gideon’s father had died when he was young, and Gideon himself quit school after eighth grade, running away from home and becoming a drifter. By the time Gideon was 16 he already had a criminal record, one that would follow him up until that fateful day when he was arrested, tried, and convicted of breaking and entering with intent to commit petty larceny. Gideon was too poor to pay for any type of defense in the case, and back in 1961 in Bay County, Fla., that meant you had to defend yourself against even the toughest prosecuting attorneys unless you were convicted of a capital offense. So it was that the Gideon’s judge denied him access to a lawyer, Gideon defended himself, lost, and was sentenced to the maximum prison term of one year.

    While serving his time, Gideon learned a little bit about law and wrote a 5-page letter to the Supreme Court about how his right to counsel under the Sixth Amendment had been violated. The Supreme Court eventually decided to take his case, and, under the argument that “you cannot have a fair trial without counsel,” ruled in Gideon’s favor. The landmark case, Gideon v. Wainwright, set precedent that states had to provide counsel for criminal defendants who could not afford counsel, essentially owing to the eventual segment of the Miranda Rights that basically read “if you cannot afford an attorney, one will be appointed for you.” After a retrial, Gideon was set free, and the legal landscape of the United States of America was changed.

  • April 11, 2013

    by Jeremy Leaming

    The U.S. Supreme Court that issued the opinion in Gideon v. Wainwright finding that criminal defendants have a constitutional right to counsel even if they cannot pay for it was a high court unwavering in its efforts to ensure that equal protection under the law applied even to the powerless and marginalized.

    Today’s Supreme Court, said UNC Law School Professor Gene Nichol at a recent symposium at Harvard Law School, is very different and in many respects reflects the nation’s treatment broadly of people in poverty. The present high court’s proclivity, Nichol said, is to intervene as the “sword-carrier, and lieutenant and hand-maiden, and aide-de-camp of the powerful and economically privileged."

    Nichol, speaking at a symposium on Gideon and on the need to extend more legal services to civil litigants hosted by the Harvard Law & Policy Review and ACS, gave a broad and damning assessment of the way the legal system separates the poor from everyone else.

    Fifty years ago, the Supreme Court led by Justice Hugo Black held in Gideon that “In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right … to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defence.” This right applied to the states Black concluded in part because of the Fourteenth Amendments requirement that government not deprive people of liberty.

    “The Gideon decision’s obvious truth – disturbing, challenging, indicting, and still obvious in truth: ‘The right to be heard would be of little avail if it did not include the right to be heard by counsel. Even the educated and intelligent layman has small and sometimes no skill in the science of law. He in incapable of determining whether the case against him is good or bad, he’s unfamiliar with the rules of evidence, he lacks the skill and knowledge to prepare his defense though he might have a perfect one. He requires the guiding hand of counsel at every step of the proceeding.’”

    Nichol said Justice Black’s wording reminded him of the mantra spoken by his friend, the late Sen. Paul Wellstone that, “It is important not to separate the lives we lead from the words we speak.”

    The professor then turned to what he described as one most searing defects of the nation’s legal system, the treatment of poor litigants.

    “Millions of poor litigants … are denied every day in every court, in every court system, in every state at every level of this broad nation, a foundational right to a meaningful hearing, at a meaningful time before forfeiting constitutionally secured interests. The largest single defect of the American system of justice; making mockery of the phrases etched on our courthouse walls, providing the great American asterisk, the delegitimizing asterisk: Equal justice for those alone who can pay the ride of significant fare” requiring “an annotation of our boastful pledge – Liberty and Justice for half. That is too generous, I know.”