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National Right to Counsel Committee Releases Groundbreaking Report on the State of Indigent Representation in America

On April 15, 2009 by Schnader in Litigation

Schnader’s Timothy K. Lewis served as co-chair of the Committee, whose report “Justice Denied: America’s Continuing Neglect of Our Constitutional Right to Counsel,” details the failures of the system and recommends twenty-two urgently needed reforms.

April 15, 2009 – Washington, D.C.: The National Right to Counsel Committee, which is sponsored by the bipartisan Constitution Project, has released its long-awaited report on the state of the United States’ indigent counsel system titled “Justice Denied: America’s Continuing Neglect of Our Constitutional Right to Counsel.” The report – which was many years in the making and involved extensive investigation, research and study of the American justice system – details the endemic and systematic failures of that system and recommends twenty-two urgently needed reforms.  (Please click here to listen to a story from NPR’s Morning Edition detailing the release of the Committee’s report.) 

Judge Timothy K. Lewis, co-chair of Schnader’s Appellate Practice Group, was a co-chair of the bi-partisan Committee, along with Rhoda Billings of Wake Forest Law School and former Chief Justice of the North Carolina Supreme Court, and Robert M. A. Johnson, District Attorney, Anoka County, Minnesota and former president of the National District Attorneys Association. Former Vice President Walter Mondale and former FBI Director William S. Sessions serve as honorary co-chairs of the Committee. The event was held at the offices of Arnold & Porter LLP in Washington, D.C.

The Committee found that excessive caseloads, inadequate funding, ethical breaches, politicization of the public defender system, and the lack of timely appointment of counsel or no appointment at all are depriving the poor of the constitutional right to representation in criminal and juvenile cases. The report offers 22 specific recommendations on how to improve the country’s criminal justice system to ensure that all people have access to free, fair, quality legal representation. The report includes recommendations for independent oversight of the system, fair and adequate funding, and standards for attorney competence, compensation, and workload. The Committee emphasized that in order to achieve reform, it is vital that a coalition of partners be engaged as part of a comprehensive strategy. The judiciary, bar officials, community leaders, public interest organizations, national associations of lawyers, and others need to be enlisted as partners to persuade law makers across the nation of the importance of an adequate program of indigent defense and the critical need for reform.

The Committee was launched in 2004 as a joint effort of the Constitution Project and the National Legal Aid and Defender Association (NLADA) designed to address the contemporary application of the United States Supreme Court’s 1963 landmark ruling in Gideon v. Wainwright that held that governments have an obligation under the United States Constitution to provide lawyers for people charged with a felony who cannot afford to hire their own. The Committee was charged with examining the ability of the American criminal justice system to provide adequate counsel to indigent criminal defendants and assessing the various ways that states and localities provide legal representation to criminal defendants. The Committee was also asked to provide recommendations on how to improve the system to ensure fairness for all Americans.

The motivation for the Committee stemmed from the unfortunate reality that despite the ruling in Gideon, there are still poverty-stricken defendants today who are not provided with competent counsel, or even must face criminal charges with no legal representation at all. Even though state and local governments are responsible for ensuring adequate counsel for defendants who cannot afford to hire their own lawyers, many people throughout the country are nonetheless still convicted and imprisoned each year without any legal representation, or with lawyers who have hundreds of other cases, no expertise in criminal law, or no funds to investigate facts or get DNA testing. Some people who cannot afford an attorney sit in jail for weeks or months before being assigned an attorney; others do not meet or speak with their lawyers until the day of a court appearance.

The Constitution Project seeks to create bipartisan consensus on controversial legal and governance issues, and then to convey that consensus through public education and advocacy. In addition to the Right to Counsel Initiative, the Project has active initiatives on the constitutional amendment process, the death penalty, liberty and security after September 11, war powers, and judicial independence.

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CONTACTS:
Caroline Brobeil Nassan
Public Relations Manager
Schnader Harrison Segal & Lewis LLP
215-751-2061
cbrobeil@schnader.com  

Tim Kolly
The Constitution Project
Phone: 202-379-4577
Cell: 312-550-6209
TKolly@constitutionproject.org