Wednesday, March 11, 2009

RIGHT TO COUNSEL SLIPPING AWAY

Walter F. Mondale, Washington Post - More than 45 years ago, as attorney general of Minnesota, I joined with the attorneys general of 21 states in asking the Supreme Court to ensure that counsel would be appointed for all people facing criminal charges who could not afford it. The court answered our plea. Yet today, its historic decision in Gideon v. Wainwright is at risk.

In Gideon, the Supreme Court ruled that Florida violated the Constitution when it refused to appoint counsel for Clarence Gideon, a defendant who lived in a rooming house and had just $25 to his name. The opinion recognized the "obvious truth" that "in our adversary system of criminal justice, any person hauled into court, who is too poor to hire a lawyer, cannot be assured a fair trial unless counsel is provided for him."

Yet states across the country routinely fail to appoint counsel to people who are genuinely unable to afford representation on their own. A report published by the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU Law School last fall, "Eligible for Justice," found that if Gideon were to face criminal charges in Florida today, he might well be denied a public defender. Under Florida law, he could be disqualified for counsel if he has assets exceeding $2,500 (excluding a house), a car valued above $5,000, or had posted bail of more than $5,000, even if none of those assets permitted him to pay the retainer -- often several thousand dollars -- that defense lawyers routinely charge.

Even in Minnesota, things are grim. The Office of the State Public Defender absorbed a $1.5 million budget cut in 2008 and faced a $4.7 million shortfall at the end of fiscal 2009. The office announced late last year that it may need to cut 61 full-time equivalent attorney positions.

Sadly, Gideon's chances of getting counsel would be worse elsewhere. In New Hampshire, he could be found ineligible for counsel if he had a home valued at more than $20,000, even if he could not sell the home in time to finance his defense and even if selling it would leave him homeless. Courts in Virginia could deny him counsel because of the amount of money possessed by family members, even if Gideon had no power over that money.

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