Right to Counsel

  • October 28, 2014

    by Caroline Cox

    Zach Carter of the Huffington Post reports on Chuck Schumer’s remark that a loss for the Democrats in the upcoming midterms would result in a Supreme Court unfriendly to the Democrats for decades.  

    At Hamilton & Griffin on Rights, Marci A. Hamilton and Leslie C. Griffin list their top ten objections to the new Department of Health and Human Services’ proposed regulations that interpret Hobby Lobby.

    In the blog for the Brennan Center for Justice, Jessica Eaglin discusses a recent victory for defendants’ Sixth Amendment right to counsel.

    Brianne Gorod writes for Balkinization on why the Supreme Court should not hear the latest challenge to the Affordable Care Act.

    In Salon, Steven Rosenfeld writes about the fight for marriage equality in Kansas and the uphill battle the LGBT movement faces in the state.

  • 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 9, 2013

    by Jeremy Leaming

    It’s been 50 years since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that criminal defendants have a constitutional right to counsel even if they cannot afford it. But too many states have not lived up to their constitutional obligation of ensuring that indigent defendants have counsel, helping lead to mass incarceration.

    A new report from the Brennan Center For Justice explains that the states’ woefully ineffective handling of indigent defense cases has led to mass incarceration that is far more costly than providing adequate counsel to poor defendants. The report also provides suggestions for reforming the system.

    In Gideon at 50: Three Reforms to Revive the Right to Counsel it is noted that at the time the high court down Gideon v. Wainwright in 1963 there were about 217,000 people in prison. “Today, the incarcerated population has expanded to approximately 2.3 million people. The United States has only 5 percent of the world’s population, but 25 percent of its prison population. One in four American adults now has been convicted of a crime. We live in an era of mass incarceration,” the report states.

    If Gideon’s promise were being met, then it is likely the country could more easily overcome the crisis of mass imprisonment.

    “Our poorly funded public defense system exacerbates our nation’s mass incarceration problem,” the Brennan report continues. “Rarely does the accused have adequate legal representation. Rarely is their fight balanced. Rarely do public defenders have the resources they need to keep Gideon’s promise of providing a constitutional right to effective counsel.”

    The report makes a strong case that it would be a far more effective use of public dollars to help ensure indigent defendants have competent, adequate counsel instead of continuing to support a mass incarceration system that is incredibly costly and harmful to minority communities.

    First, the report notes that mass imprisonment largely targets minority communities. “African-American and Hispanics, who make up less than 30 percent of the country’s population, are nearly 60 percent of the prison population. Whites, with 64 percent of the general population, make up approximately 35 percent of the prison population.”

  • March 18, 2013
    Guest Post

    by Stephen B. Bright and Sia M. Sanneh. Bright teaches at Yale Law School and is President and Senior Counsel of The Southern Center for Human Rights in Atlanta. Sanneh is the Senior Liman Fellow at Yale Law School and an attorney with the Equal Justice Initiative in Alabama. 


    Exactly 50 years ago, in Gideon v. Wainwright, the Supreme Court declared the right to a lawyer “fundamental and essential” to fairness in the criminal courts and held that lawyers must be provided for people who could not afford them so that every person “stands equal before the law.” In later decisions, the Court ruled that a poor person facing any loss of liberty must have a lawyer “so that the accused may know precisely what he is doing, so that he is fully aware of the prospect of going to jail or prison, and so that he is treated fairly by the prosecution.”And yet, a half century later this right is violated every day in thousands of courts across the nation, at every stage of the process.

    In our forthcoming essay, Fifty Years of Defiance and Resistance After Gideon v. Wainwright, to be published in the Yale Law Journal, we chronicle the day-to-day denial of counsel in counties throughout the country; the refusal of governments to provide adequate funding for lawyers for the people they seek to convict, fine, imprison and execute; the complicity of judges in the denial of counsel; the enormous and unchecked power of prosecutors to decide cases, including sentences, often with little or no input from defense counsel; and the Supreme Court’s decision to paper over and ignore violations of the right to counsel instead of correcting them.

    As we argue in our essay:

    The cost of this one-sided system is enormous. Innocent people are convicted and sent to prison while the perpetrators remain at large. Important issues, such as the system’s pervasive racism—from stops by law enforcement officers to disparate sentencing—are ignored. People are sentenced without consideration of their individual characteristics, allowing race, politics, and other improper factors to influence sentences. Over 2.2 million people—a grossly disproportionate number of them African Americans and Latinos—are in prisons and jails at a cost of $75 billion a year. Nearly an additional five million people are on probation, parole, or supervised release. Over seventy thousand children are held in juvenile facilities. Even those who have completed their sentences may be deported, denied the right to vote, dishonorably discharged from the Armed Forces, denied public benefits, and denied business or professional licenses. Reentry into society is extremely difficult, extending the costs to the families and communities of those who have been imprisoned.

    There are expressive costs as well. A system in which all of the key actors routinely ignore one of its most fundamental constitutional requirements is not a system based on the rule of law, no matter what it claims to be. When those actors shirk their constitutional obligations and bring the immense power of the state down most heavily on African Americans and Latinos, people cease to have confidence in the courts. The system lacks legitimacy and credibility and is undeserving of respect. For this to change, courts, legislatures, executives, and members of the legal profession will need to respond with a sense of urgency and commitment to justice that has been missing in most places during the last fifty years.