The Constitution Project has announced its support for the Equal Justice Under Law Act of 2016, which creates a federal cause of action that allows a class of indigent defendants to sue in federal court on a pre-conviction basis for systemic violations of the Sixth Amendment. In an April 29 letter to Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney (D-N.Y.), TCP President Virginia Sloan wrote that the legislation implements a key recommendation in the National Right Counsel Committee’s 2009 report, Justice Denied. Maloney is the chief sponsor of the bill.
In in its landmark 1963 decision, Gideon v. Wainwright, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Sixth Amendment guarantees a lawyer to every criminal defendant, regardless of whether he or she can afford one on their own. However, Sloan wrote, the National Right to Counsel Committee found that, more than four decades later, all too often indigent defendants were provided counsel late, or not at all, and that even in jurisdictions in which a public defender was provided to represent an accused defendant, the lawyer was often laboring under such an excessive caseload that effective representation was simply not possible. As a result, the report recommended that “litigation to remedy such deficiencies should be instituted.”
Under current law, the only time most defendants can effectively assert claims of inadequate representation is after they have been convicted or pled guilty. Such challenges can take years. Even in the event that they win, the defendants’ rights have already been violated and the damage done. By providing a pre-conviction opportunity for federal judicial relief, the legislation may create an avenue to motivate states to fulfill their obligation to provide adequate representation to all defendants.
Noting TCP’s long and extensive engagement with the issue, Sloan wrote to Maloney, “Congressional attention to the crisis in our indigent defense system is a welcome development. Thank you for your leadership on this issue and for introducing Equal Justice Under Law Act. TCP is pleased to support it.”