We recently marked the 50th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s landmark decision in Gideon v. Wainwright, which held that states are constitutionally required to provide criminal defense counsel to individuals charged with a felony and unable to afford a lawyer on their own. Before 1963, individuals charged with a criminal offense were subject to patchwork rules regarding the right to counsel, effectively at the whim of states, some of which provided protections in their constitutions, some in state or local statutes, and some not at all. The Gideon decision made clear that every state had an obligation to protect the fundamental constitutional right to counsel, by providing attorneys for those defendants too poor to hire their own in felony prosecutions.
Too many jurisdictions across the country are still not meeting their full constitutional obligation to ensure this right. And Texas is one of them.
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Changes in Travis?
In an ambitious and contested proposal, state district and county court judges in Travis County are looking to remove themselves from the oversight of the system used to appoint private attorneys as counsel for poor defendants. The current structure in Travis County, they say, doesn’t comply with American Bar Association principles and negatively affects their relationships with the lawyers they enlist.
Attorneys say they work in a system that pushes them to reach plea agreements quickly and pays them pittances for massive amounts of work, hampering their abilities to adequately defend their clients and sometimes subverting justice.
The petition seeks to create an Office of Managed Assigned Counsel that would take over the judiciary role in defense services. The new board — which could consist of veteran criminal defense attorneys, judges and retired judges — would systematically review and appoint lawyers to indigent cases and determine how much they are compensated for their efforts.
It is only in its early stages, and some judges are still unsure whether it could succeed, but the proposition is generating wide debate from proponents who believe the system must evolve and from critics who say the changes would only add another level of unneeded bureaucracy.
Currently, the Office of Court Administration takes applications from lawyers who wish to receive court-appointed referrals. Staff members screen them for basic requirements and compile their information to place them on a “wheel” so they can be assigned to cases chronologically.
Find out more online at http://bit.ly/YuA1k7.
Video on Gideon case
To observe the 50th anniversary of the Gideon vs. Wainwright ruling, The Constitution Project produced “Defending Gideon,” a video that dramatically demonstrates continuing failures to provide full access to legal counsel for criminal defendants. Find the video online at constitutionproject.org/publications-resources/defending-gideon.
Mark White served as governor of Texas from 1983 to 1987 and as attorney general of Texas from 1979 to 1983. He co-chairs the Constitution Project’s Death Penalty Committee, which promotes improvements in the death penalty system.
William S. Sessions served three U.S. presidents as director of the FBI. He previously served as chief judge for the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas, and before that as the district’s U.S. attorney. He is a member of the Constitution Project’s board of directors.
The Constitution Project, based in Washington, D.C. brings together policy experts and legal practitioners from across the political spectrum to foster consensus-based solutions to the most difficult constitutional challenges of our time.