Justice reform? Don’t forget public defenders

Lost in U.S. Supreme Court finger-pointing debacles this week was a legal anniversary that reminds us justice is a process.

On March 18, 1963 the U.S. Supreme Court declared the right to counsel fundamental to fairness. That decision, Gideon v. Wainwright, led to the establishment of public defense systems across the nation.

The case involved a homeless Florida man, Clarence Gideon. He’d been accused of breaking into a pool hall, and insisted he couldn’t afford an attorney. Florida law at the time required court-appointed representation only for the indigent who faced capital charges.

It was Gideon’s post-conviction appeal that made it’s way before the Supreme Court and ultimately broadened 14th Amendment Due Process to include state felony defendants unable to pay for legal assistance. After the decision, Gideon was provided counsel and his case retried. He was acquitted.

Surprisingly, the core decision in Gideon has remained unchanged, although unsuccessful attempts were made to expand it to misdemeanor charges.

The spirit of the decision, on the other hand, isn’t always realized due to a lack of resources and an abundance of work. Nationally, public defenders represent more than 80 percent of people accused of crimes.

In Iowa, the Gideon decision marks a much less bright spot in the state’s otherwise well-established history of key civil rights advances — many undertaken years before national requirements.

Nearly three decades passed before the state appointed a public defender and established a network of offices throughout the state. In the interim, Iowans who sought counsel would be provided an attorney without guarantee of that person’s credentials. Private attorneys, some without criminal or trial experience, might represent poor defendants facing felony charges.

Linn County public defender David Grinde smiles as he gives encouragement to his client during a plea hearing at the Linn County Courthouse in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, in February 2016.
Linn County public defender David Grinde smiles as he gives encouragement to his client during a plea hearing at the Linn County Courthouse in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, in February 2016. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

State officials have worked to improve the system, which isn’t an inexpensive proposition. The total annual budget is approximately $57.6 million for the provision of indigent defense, which includes a $1.6 million county base, according to the Legislative Services Agency.

State General Fund appropriations are approximately $55.8 million, split between the Office of the State Public Defender and the Indigent Defense Fund. The county base is added into the fund budget, which pays private attorneys that represent indigent defendants, expert witnesses, court reporters, private investigators and other service providers.

In Iowa, public defenders and private attorneys can provide legal counsel once a judge determines the accused is indigent. Public defenders are the first choice, but if none is available or able to take the case, the judge can appoint a private attorney. Costs associated with the legal defense are weighed against the accused individual’s ability to pay and assessed as part of court costs.

Polk County serves as the administrative office, Appellate Defender Office (represents those convicted in appeals), the Special Defense Unit, and provides statewide services. Nineteen public defender offices have been established in 14 cities, and those offices are tasked with serving all 99 counties in juvenile and adult court cases.

State lawmakers also established four Gideon Fellowships as an incentive for newly graduated attorneys to work as public defenders. The fellowships are two-year appointments open to individuals who graduate from law school and pass the bar exam.

Fellows, public defenders and private attorneys stand against the power and resources of government in a system that too often tramples society’s most marginalized and vulnerable citizens.

As recent political smear ads against rumored Supreme Court justice nominee and former federal public defender Jane Kelly made all too clear, it’s a role too often vilified.

Even as state and national leaders launch a broad conversation on justice reform — in which U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley plays a starring role — there is notable silence on the importance of robust support for public defense.

Defense attorneys provide a necessary balance. Just verdicts cannot be reached when only one side of an argument is heard.

As a nation, we finally seem poised to take on pretrial detention practices, draconian sentencing laws, disproportionate contact and conviction, and over-criminalization. Such discussions are long past due, but must be paired with a renewed commitment to zealous and effective legal counsel.

When we think of justice, we often see only an outcome — a verdict or conviction. But justice isn’t merely the end point. As Gideon showed, justice is a process that must be balanced for fairness.

This column by Lynda Waddington originally published in The Gazette on March 20, 2016. Photo credit: Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette