Monday, November 17, 2008

I love all my rights equally. How about you?

Over lunch today, my co-workers and I spent some time talking about how tough it is for public defender agencies throughout the country. In state after state, agencies are so overloaded with cases, attorneys are starting to revolt, declaring they just can't possibly take any new cases. Believe me, I feel that pain, too. And we're probably facing more budget cuts. This conversation led to the inevitable question, "Why are state legislatures so unwilling to fund indigent defense services the way they should?"

Why, indeed? I'm sure to a lot of state legislators, the line item for the public defender system isn't an easy one to explain to constituents angry about government expenditures. It isn't politically palatable to pursue increasing funds for those wastes of lawyers who defend those scummy bad guys. I guess when you put it that way. But why does the general public want to put it that way?

People love the First Amendment. They love to defend the rights guaranteed by that amendment, especially speech. Folks sure do enjoy speaking their mind. An awful lot of people think the Second Amendment is the most important amendment. Don't even try to take away their guns! Folks got really upset when the Supreme Court issued a takings case that made it too easy for government to take private property under the Fifth Amendment.

So where's the love for the Sixth Amendment? By allowing public defender agencies to go underfunded, we're saying we don't much care about that amendment. We don't much care whether people charged with crimes really do have the assistance of counsel. Which means we don't much care whether people receive due process of law (Fifth Amendment), are protected against self-incrimination (5th), are protected against illegal searches and seizures (4th), get to confront their accusers (6th), or are protected against cruel and unusual punishments (8th). Because without an attorney who knows the rules and the law the state has to follow, you're not going to know when the state is overstepping its authority and you're not going to know what argument to make in response.

That's like half the Bill of Rights that we don't seem to care about. But the founders of our country cared about them. They thought these particular rights were so important, they had to be explicitly included in the Constitution. If they hadn't been written down, the Constitution may very well not have been ratified in many of the original states.

So I guess I just really don't understand why people are so loathe to foot the bill for public defenders. Why do we hate half our rights?


Heather said...

I have to admit, my favorite Amendment is the 19th, because without that Amendment I am pretty sure I would have had some serious trouble getting into law school so I could become a public defender. ;-)

But seriously, it just takes some education and some efforts at reframing. When people ask me how I can possibly sleep at night when I represent the scum of the earth, I just reframe the discussion and ask them if they believe in the constitution and if they believe in the right to a fair trial by an impartial jury or if they think justice should only be available to those who can afford to pay for it. Of course, they always agree that those are fundamental rights and an important part of our society when put that way. Then suddenly, they find some new respect for the public defender system.

As lawyers we are advocates. We just need to start doing a better job advocating for ourselves in the state capitol. We need to stop letting our legislators run from their constitutional responsibilities to properly fund the public defender system. And, in a time of economic trouble, when budgets are being cut, now is the time to advocate for our budgets so we don't end up on the sharp end of the budget ax.

S said...

The 19th is a good one. I'm a big fan of the 21st as well. But I was focusing on the first 10. :)

You're right that we need to speak up for ourselves. If we don't scream from the rooftops that we need more, no one else will. This is one of those times when I should really take advantage of the fact that I know my state rep. (Think how great it would be if he moved to the state senate and someone else got to the house...)

Anonymous said...

I'm a fan of the 3rd Amendment. Get them soldiers out of my house!

Lisa Johnson said...

Wow! That is a powerful post! You are so right. Where is the love for the 6th Amendment? People don't really think about it until it's too late and they are in trouble.

I think I might have to write a post and link to yours. I'll have to see what I can put together...

S said...

The 3rd is a good one.

Anali, I'm guessing I know which amendment is your favorite!

As for this being a powerful post, you haven't even seen the half of how soap-boxy I can get about this. Wait until I get into my "criminal defense attorneys are the truest patriots because we dedicate ourselves to defending the Constitution EVERY DAY!" That sermon usually involves alcohol (but not always).

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