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February 01, 2017

Legislation seeks to fix problems with public defender system

The ABA  expressed strong support last month for the goals of legislation introduced by Sens. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney (D-N.Y.) that seek to help the nation’s public defender system meet the Sixth Amendment’s guarantee of right to counsel required by the landmark 1963 Supreme Court decision in Gideon v. Wainwright.

S. 328 and H.R. 968, the Equal Justice Under Law Act, would confer jurisdiction on the U.S. district courts to provide declaratory and injunctive relief against systemic violations of the right to counsel. S. 330 and H.R. 969, the Clarence Gideon Full Access to Justice Act, would establish a federal Defender Office for Supreme Court Advocacy dedicated to delivering independent, uniform and quality defense representation in criminal cases before the U.S. Supreme Court and, in some cases, before the highest courts in the states.

“Our legislation seeks to fill the glaring gaps that have left too many Americans vulnerable and without adequate legal representation from the lowest levels of our judicial system all the way to the Supreme Court,” Booker said in announcing the introduction of the bills. “We must better balance the scales of justice so that we can truly be a nation of liberty and justice for all.”

In a Jan. 26 letter to Booker, ABA Governmental Affairs Director Thomas M. Susman noted a report issued by the ABA’s Standing Committee on Legal Aid and Indigent Defendants (SCLAID), which conducted four public hearings in 2004 at which 32 experts from 22 large and small states across the country testified. He said the report observed that when lack of funding for indigent defense led to overwhelming workloads, the result was “routine violations of the Sixth Amendment obligation to provide effective assistance of counsel.”

Susman also pointed out that the importance of controlling workloads to ensure quality representation is highlighted in Principle 5 of the ABA’s 2002 Ten Principles of a Public Defense Delivery System, the comment for Guideline 5 of the ABA‘s 2009 Eight Guidelines of Public Defense Related to Excessive Workloads, and Formal Opinion 06-441 of the ABA Model Rules of Professional Conduct.  


Back to the February 2017 Washington Letter