Sixth Amendment in Crisis as U.S. Marks Ratification of the Constitution

Tconstitutionhe Constitution has been the backbone of our country for well over two centuries. Through the years, it has been battered and tested.  As the country marks the ratification of the Constitution 226-years ago, those who carefully monitor and work in the world of indigent defense are alarmed at the state of the 6th Amendment as it currently exists in American courtrooms.

The 6th Amendment reads:

In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the State and district wherein the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defence.” 

The underlined portions of the 6th Amendment are the basis for the landmark Supreme Court decision Gideon v. Wainwright, which led to the creation of our country’s indigent defense system 50-years ago.

Yesterday, in Washington, D.C., the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers held a briefing on the federal indigent defense system.  Entitled “Chipping Away at the 6th Amendment: Federal Indigent Defense in Crisis,” politicians, national public defense leaders and scholars outlined the rapid decline of this system due to sequestration:

“Federal defender organizations lost approximately 10% of their budget in 2013, leading to significant layoffs, 15-20 day furloughs, scant funds for vital case expenses, case delays, and other administrative burdens on the courts. Underpaid court-appointed attorneys recently suffered a 12% rate cut and lengthy payment deferrals. If no action is taken, federal defenders could suffer a further 10% budget cut in FY 2014, devastating this once model program.”  — NACDL media release for 9/17/2013 briefing

This summer,  Judge Julia Gibbons of the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals (a former Federal District Court Judge in Memphis) testified to a Senate subcommittee that this year’s $350 million dollars in sequestration cuts will “devastate” federal courts.

“If funding levels remain flat or decline, it compromises the constitutional mission of the courts.”  — Judge Julie Gibbons, U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit

This funding crisis also extends to the local level.  Just last month, the Department of Justice took action against two Washington cities with just two part-time public defenders handling 2,000 cases. The DOJ is calling for court-appointed monitors to control lawyer workload.  This unprecedented action follows a statement made this summer by U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, which characterized the country’s indigent defense system as being “in crisis.”

Read more about indigent defense in Shelby County in Memphis Lawyer magazine.