Sen. Booker and Rep. Maloney Renew Effort to Fix America’s Strained Public Defender System
Equal Justice Under Law Act would compel local courts to address the indigent defense crisis
Gideon Act would improve legal representation in Supreme Court cases
WASHINGTON – U.S. Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ) and Representative Sean Patrick Maloney (NY-18) are renewing a bicameral effort to fix America’s strained public defender system from local courts all the way to the Supreme Court. Booker and Maloney re-introduced two legislative initiatives that seek to ensure America’s judicial institutions are living up to the Constitution’s guarantee of a right to counsel.
The Equal Justice Under Law Act would empower indigent criminal defendants to take action against states and localities that systematically fail to provide effective assistance of counsel in felony cases.
The Gideon Act would establish a federal corporation dedicated to delivering independent, uniform, and quality defense representation in criminal cases before the United States Supreme Court and, at times, in the highest courts in the states.
“Decades after the Supreme Court reaffirmed the constitutional right of every American to an attorney in a criminal case, public defenders are still juggling hundreds of cases and defendants are still meeting their lawyers only minutes before entering a guilty plea,” said Rep. Maloney. “Our criminal justice system is broken, and that disproportionately hurts minority communities and poor Americans. Our legislation would give indigent defendants the tools they need to secure their right to effective counsel before it is too late – giving all Americans, regardless of the size of their paycheck, equal justice under the law.”
Sen. Booker said, “The right to counsel is guaranteed to all Americans by the Constitution. But all too often, our broken justice system falls short. Our legislation seeks to fill in 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. We must better balance the scales of justice so that we can truly be a nation of liberty and justice for all.”
“While a practicing attorney, I gained the highest level of respect for our public defenders. Overworked and underpaid, they take on the toughest cases to ensure that even the most vulnerable of defendants have a determined advocate before our courts. However, our system is not without its flaws. I am proud to support these two bills, which would go a long way in strengthening the indigent defense systems from the smallest of local courts to the highest court in the land,” said Rep. Elijah Cummings, original co-sponsor of both bills.
In the landmark decision Gideon v. Wainwright, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously ruled that the Sixth Amendment guarantees every criminal defendant in a felony case the right to a lawyer. That decision reinforced the ideal that equal justice under law for all people is a fundamental component of our criminal justice system.
But Gideon’s promise of equal justice remains unfulfilled in states and localities across the country, where the public defender system is often woefully underfunded and overburdened. According to a 2012 Brennan Center report, there are counties and states in America where public defenders are responsible more than 300 cases at one time. Seventy-five percent of county-funded public defender offices have caseloads that exceed recommended standards. As a result, public defenders are often unable to provide the accused with their right to meaningful and effective assistance of counsel.
These inequities extend to the Supreme Court. Over fifty years after Gideon, the federal government has yet to create an entity dedicated to furnishing legal counsel for criminal defendants in Supreme Court cases. Rather, the job is done almost wholly by private individuals who volunteer their services or public defenders who often have never argued before the High Court.
The Constitution Project, the American Bar Association, National Legal Aid & Defender Association, American Council of Chief Defenders, and National Association for Public Defense have expressed support for the Equal Justice Under Law Act and the Gideon Act. The ACLU and National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers have endorsed the Equal Justice Under the Law Act.