Gideon v. Wainwright is one of those cases that stands out as a high point in American jurisprudence. The wild notion that a person’s economic situation should not be a barrier to a just day in court is a powerful message that is taught in legal classrooms throughout the nation. As it stands, Oregon appears to have not gotten the memo — and NYU is taking them to task for it. From NYU News:
NYU Law’s Center on Race, Inequality, and the Law filed a lawsuit against the state of Oregon for failing to provide public defenders to low-income individuals accused of crimes. The center joined the Oregon Justice Resource Center’s Civil Rights Project, a legal nonprofit, in suing Oregon, asking that the state fulfills its legal obligation of appointing public defenders.
I get it — there is no question that public defenders are busy:
But that does not excuse the fact that the works needs to be done. Public appointments are a vital part of our legal system that protect the rights of those most in need.
The lawsuit, which was filed last month, comes as a shortage of public defenders has left around 1,300 accused individuals — many of whom are Black — without representation in Oregon. While the deficit exists nationwide, Oregon’s situation is especially urgent, according to Ted Jack, a legal fellow at the Center of Race, Inequality, and the Law.
“Here in Oregon, we’re talking about a system that is so far past its breaking point that poor people can’t even get a lawyer,” Jack said. “We’re asking the court to order the state to fulfill its obligation to provide effective counsel.”
The important word here is obligation. Not nicety or kindness, obligation. Thankfully, there are folks committed to justice who have the means to enforce that obligation when the duty is not being carried out.
The class action lawsuit seeks to hold Oregon and members of the Public Defense Services Commission accountable for alleged violations of defendants’ constitutional rights. The Supreme Court has ruled that the Sixth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution guarantees a defendant’s right to legal representation. As actors like NYU use legal means to get matters done, it is important to also recognize that there are likely economic explanations for the dearth of representation.
Elections just happened and many candidates ran on platforms forcing the need to be “tough on crime” down people’s throats. Let’s not forget about the importance of being steadfast on justice, too. Police budgets aren’t the only thing deserving of tax dollars. A well-funded public defense system may in fact be — and I’m sorry for the people I’ll alienate by saying this — more important than making sure that police officers have state-of-the-art riot gear to use on protestors. I’m not saying public defenders should be rolling in to court wearing red bottoms, but if the answer to getting people representation means reallocating spending budgets, so be it.
Chris Williams became a social media manager and assistant editor for Above the Law in June 2021. Prior to joining the staff, he moonlighted as a minor Memelord™ in the Facebook group Law School Memes for Edgy T14s. He endured Missouri long enough to graduate from Washington University in St. Louis School of Law. He is a former boatbuilder who cannot swim, a published author on critical race theory, philosophy, and humor, and has a love for cycling that occasionally annoys his peers. You can reach him by email at email@example.com and by tweet at @WritesForRent.