You know, a while back I imposed on Gideon, the Connecticut. PD who runs "a Public Defender" blog (here) with a huge quasi comment (see here. Scroll down, you'll find it.) on the sad state of indigent defense (that is, the provision of same, not the quality) everywhere you look, and it occurred to me, Why am I not posting this on my own blog? What the heck is wrong with me? So, here are some of Mr. DA’s thoughts on indigent defense and related topics.
First off, what the heck is "indigent?" Well, so far it’s primarily an adjective, but the noun form seems to be gaining acceptance, especially in legal circles. Most dictionaries I’ve looked at tag "indigent" as an adjective, (see, for example, the listings at the Onelook: General Dictionary Sites page) but a few add the noun form as a second definition. One example: "adj. 1. Experiencing want or need; impoverished. See Synonyms at poor. . . n. A needy or destitute person." American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (3d Ed). Some add the qualifiers ‘very’ or ‘extremely’ to poor and/or needy.
So, in law speak, indigent defense is the defense of very/extremely poor/needy people. Seems clear enough at first blush. But. . .
- What is ‘indigent?’ That is, how poor is very/extremely poor?
- Once we know that, how do we determine if a given defendant is, in fact, indigent?
- And who decides if a particular defendant is indigent?
- Who represents the indigent defendant? Obviously, an attorney, but which attorney?
- How does that attorney get compensated? Or do we impose the duty to represent indigent defendants on the members of the bar as a mandatory pro bono publico activity. Sort of an "in kind" element of their bar dues. Abraham Lincoln said an attorney’s time and advice are his stock in trade. Is it fair to take that time and advice without compensation? Is there a Fifth Amendment problem here?
- If we are going to pay attorneys to defend the indigent, how much are we going to pay them?
- And who, exactly, is ‘we’ in this context?
The place to really start is the Supreme Court's 1963 decision in a case called Gideon v Wainwright, 372 U.S. 335 (1963). For a detailed review of this opinion take a look at the entry at LandmarkCases.org for a copy of the opinion itself and lots and lots of additional material. The site is designed for teachers, primarily at the high school/junior college level, so there is a wealth of detail that isn't normally presented in discussions of Gideon. I particularly like the "Evolution of a Decision" activity. It takes you from Powell v Alabama to Betts v Brady to Gideon to Argersinger v Hamlin that considered whether the Sixth Amendment right to counsel applied to misdemeanors as well as felonies.Well, that should keep you busy for a while. More, later.