U.S. Sen. Cory Booker has introduced the Clarence Gideon Full Access to Justice Act (Gideon Act), which 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, the highest courts in the states.
“Etched in stone above the entrance to the Supreme Court of the United States reads the phrase, ‘Equal Justice Under Law.’ Over fifty years ago, the Supreme Court attempted to give that phrase meaning when the Court unanimously declared that the Constitution guarantees every criminal defendant in a felony case the right to a lawyer.” Sen. Booker said. “However, a structural imbalance currently exists at the Supreme Court where the government is represented by attorneys who specialize in Supreme Court advocacy, yet public defenders lack a similar office. The Gideon Act seeks to support ordinary citizens in their pursuit of justice by providing access to high-quality and specialized representation at the Supreme Court.”
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. As a result, they 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.
Without counsel trained and experienced in Supreme Court advocacy, the likelihood that cases are decided against criminal defendants increases. In addition, the development of criminal jurisprudence can far too often tilt in favor of the government and against the civil rights of ordinary Americans seeking justice in criminal cases.
If enacted into law, the Gideon Act would:
· Create the Defender Office for Supreme Court Advocacy (Office), which would perform the following functions:
· Provide oral argument in criminal cases, when necessary;
· Draft “friend of the court” briefs to help develop criminal case law with federal issues;
· Respond to the Court’s “call for views” on complex criminal law issues;
· Monitor cases seeking Supreme Court review;
· File petitions for Supreme Court review in noteworthy criminal cases;
· Consult with lawyers’ representing criminal defendants seeking Supreme Court review of their cases;
· Train appellate lawyers on Supreme Court advocacy in noncapital criminal cases involving federal law issues;
· Permit appellate advocacy before the highest courts of states, if resources permit
The Clarence Gideon Full Access to Justice Act (Gideon Act), is supported by the Innocence Project and the NAACP.