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Sen. Booker, 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

February 7, 2017
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WASHINGTON, DC – U.S. Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) and U.S. Rep. 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. 

Today, Booker and Maloney are re-introducing 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 US Supreme Court and, at times, in the highest courts in the states. 

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.”

Rep. Maloney said, “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. 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.”

In the landmark decision Gideon v. Wainwright, the United States 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. 75 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 NAACP and the Innocence Project have both expressed support for the Equal Justice Under Law Act and the Gideon Act.