Jun 08, 2010

Putting Teeth (and Money) Into the Right to Counsel

In Gideon v. Wainwright (1963), the U.S. Supreme Court decided that under the 6th Amendment, most indigent crimihnal defendants are entitled to be represented by government-paid lawyers. But states are free to set up their own systems for providing legal representation to indigent criminal defendants. Civil class action lawsuits are underway in a number of states, claiming that their methods of providing legal representation to indigent criminal defendants violate the 6th Amendment because they effectively result in ineffective assistance of counsel.    

In the case of Hurrell-Harring v. New York, a group of indigent criminal defendants have sued 5 New York counties, claiming that their methods of providing them with defense counsel are unconstitutional. Among their claims: Even innocent defendants have languished in jail for months because they are unable to afford bail and court-appointed lawyers ignore their cases. New York sought to dismiss the case, but in May 2010 the New York Court of Appeals issued an order stating that the case can proceed to trial.

The case's ultimate outcome is not clear, because the plaintiffs still have to support their claims with evidence. A big issue however is the role of judges in deciding how much money states allocate to their criminal justice systems, especially on behalf of criminal defendants. You can bet that few politicians run on platforms bragging about the large amount of state funding they secured on behalf of people charged with crimes. If Hurrell-Harring is decided in favor of the plaintiffs (indigent defendants), the upshot will be that New York will at least have to hire more lawyers to represent indigent criminal defendants. At a time when public funds are scarce and competing demands by many worthy claimants for those funds are high, it's safe to say that the voting public will not be happy if judges order states to allocate more funds for criminal defense lawyers.