On a cold day in January, 1963, 9 men sat atop a perch and listened, for hours, to three other men argue for and against the means to dispense equal justice for all citizens of these United States. A short two months later, in March, Gideon v. Wainwright was born, mandating that States were required to provide attorneys for those who could not afford them to assist with the defense of criminal accusations.
At the time of the decision, public defender systems and counsel for the indigent wasn’t a novel concept: almost 45 states already had either full-fledged public defender systems or court rules that provided for the appointment of counsel. Gideon just provided a Constitutional basis for the widespread notion that all defendants should have access to counsel, in spite of their financial abilities.
Of course, the application of Gideon has been uneven over the years. Some states have strong public defender systems and some provide counsel in a piecemeal, arbitrary and haphazard manner. Much has been written, and continues to be written, about the state of indigent defense.
Without adequate funding, the reality of Gideon‘s promise will fall far short of the ideal. Of course, public defenders aren’t the only players in the game: there is the private defense attorney, who existed long before Gideon provided a way for me to have a job. People with some income are free to hire such an attorney and will always continue to be so.
A new idea has been tossed around these parts (and by that I mean the blawgosphere) over the past few days: that perhaps the best way to ensure equal justice, and for defendants to stand on equal footing with the frightening power of the States, is to have a universal public defender system. “Lawyers for all” is the call, and at first blush it seems like a good idea.
State legislatures these days have criminalized all human actions but breathing. If they are so inclined, goes the argument, then they must also be forced to provide the resources to defend against the zealous overprosecutions. Why must the defendant be left to his own devices and his own resources, when the State has its entire treasury at its disposal? Even the footing, goes the argument, and more prosecutions will fall by the wayside. Perhaps, if they are forced to provide the same resources to both sides, the staggering costs along with the piling “losses” for the State will knock some sense into the “tough on crime” legislators and force a rethinking of the penal code.
It is a fine idea and one that I stand behind in principle. But I’m not entirely sure what “universal public defenders” actually means. Scott raises the concern that to conscript all criminal defense lawyers into this army would be to place the power of defense in the hands of the State, and the resources at their whim and fancy. 9 different men and women may one day decide that the 6th Amendment never did mean all defendants. And then what?
If the criminal defense bar becomes dependent on the government for its livelihood, we likewise become dependent on the government for our existence. One day, somebody gets it into their heads that they don’t like us anymore and, poof, we’re done. One bad Supreme Court decision and Gideon is toast. A vital private bar, beyond the reach of the government, must continue to exist if we’re going to be positioned to fight for the accused. If our children’s next meal depends on government largesse, we have sold our independence for good. We’re just another cog in the government wheel.
Put us on the government payroll and we work for the Man. Do we really want to serve the Man? Not me. I serve my client, no one else.
In response to Scott, Norm Pattis of the one-man-army-on-revolutionary-ideas further explains the concept of the UPD:
Having a unviersal public defender service does not mean conscripting all members of the bar and making them government employees. It means that all members of the bar can apply to be appointed off a list of qualified defenders. It also means that making your way onto that list, and remaining there, requires demonstrating minimal competence in the difficult work of defending the accused.
Not all lawyers will seek such appointment. Those who don’t want strings attached to what they do can compete for the private dollars swirling in the wake of the arrests of the affluent. But the middle class, those folks not indigent but without the means to hire a full defense team, won’t be facing the resources of the state armed only with the wits of the lawyer they could afford.
And so we come to the crux of it and thus to a tune that I have long trumpeted (GET IT!?). There are three classes of criminal defendants: the very poor, the rich and those in between. The first two we need not worry about: they will always have counsel and will always have the resources to fight their prosecutions. Indeed, the concept of the ‘UPD’ already does exist in some form. First, there is the public defender system for those who are “indigent”. For the overflow cases, i.e. the cases above and beyond that which the normal person can and should handle, there is the conflict attorney or special public defender (or your local variation thereon). This covers a very, very large percentage of the criminal docket. For example, here in CT, the latest statistics show that the public defender system will represent over 80% of the criminal defendants in the State.
We are fortunate enough to have vast resources at our disposal. I need an expert? I got an expert. I need to send my investigator to Florida to contact a witness? The investigator is on a plane/train/automobile. The same applies to our Special Public Defenders, although it may take slightly longer.
Then we have the really rich. They hire private counsel, have some sums of money at their disposal and can generally adequately fund their own defense. And what if they no longer have any money? Well, there’s a mechanism to provide the tools of their defense there too. Ake v. Oklahoma provides for the State to pay for the necessary tools to conduct a defense, if someone who wasn’t indigent at the time of the institution of the prosecution now becomes indigent. Mr. Rich Client has burned through the sums of money in his bank account and has already mortgaged his house and yet needs to hire the forensic expert? The State will pay for it.
Which brings us to the one category that would really benefit from some modification of the public defender system: the poor-by-everyone-elses-standards-but-not-poor-enough-to-get-a-pd.
This is the class of defendants who make a little too much to fall below the artificially low income threshold and don’t make nearly enough to realistically hire a lawyer and fund the tools of an adequate defense. It is these people that we need to be worried about. Several times have I expressed disgust at the indigency cutoff and the arbitrary enforcement of these “guidelines”. What might get you counsel in one court, county or state may not get you counsel in another. There needs to be an honest and serious rethinking of the guidelines.
[Second thought: this also raises the uncomfortable specter of the private attorney who charges very little to get this business and the attendant problems. Now, I've never had to quote a price for a case and I hope never to have to do that. I don't know how all private lawyers operate, but it would seem that, given the glut of lawyers, there is a fair percentage that will take cases for the lowest possible fee and provide proportional representation. Do these lawyers know of Ake? Do they care? Does that defendant get equal justice? This, of course, is a very touchy issue with the private bar, just as the "overworked and underqualified" public defender is a touchy issue with me. But the reality is that there are attorneys on both sides of the money divide who are half-assing it for various reasons.]
Perhaps that is what is meant by a universal public defender system. Income eligibility should not be determined by gross income, but rather by disposable income. People should not be asked to make the difficult choices of paying for insurance, rent and utilities at the expense of hiring a lawyer. That is the unacceptable reality of the public defender system today.
Increase the guidelines, thus making more people eligible for public defenders. All but the very rich should have access to our services. And the very rich, if they were to ever run out of money, should also have the ability to have the State pay for their defense. And it has indeed happened: private counsel file motions seeking to be appointed as special public defenders once the client runs out of money and work still needs to be done.
I realize that I write this from a State of relative comfort. In CT, we get most of the funding we seek and we are rarely ever left wanting. I could not name a single case where I needed to do something for the defense and was unable to pay for it. Other states, I know, are far worse. But a universal public defender system without the funding is no different from what we have today.
And if there is greater funding, then the problems that currently exist no longer are a concern.
So the question, then, is: how do we get states to adequately fund the defense of criminal prosecutions? That requires a shift in thinking.