October 22, 2003
Right to counsel
The Washington Post reminds us of Gideon v. Wainwright, a landmark Supreme Court case in 1963, where the court held that the "right to counsel is a fundamental right and is essential for a fair trial." Justice Black wrote that "lawyers in criminal courts are necessities, not luxuries." As a lawyer, I view this as a mandate to all states to provide counsel. Trials are tough for lawyers, imagine how non-lawyers fare against experienced prosecutors.
But there is a new threat. States with huge deficits are demanding that the poor pay for legal services. It is disappointing, but Minnesota is taking the lead with a new law requiring the poor to pay up to $200 for appointed counsel. For the desperately poor, this undermines their right to counsel because they can't afford the fee. Fortunately, Judge Richard Hopper in Hennepin County ruled that the law is unconstitutional. We can only hope that Minnesota comes to its senses.
But add this to the criminalization of driving offenses discussed in my blog yesterday, and those with a conspiratorial bent would conclude there is a plan to seriously reduce the number of poor people of color on the voting rolls. First you find yourself charged with a new "crime" for driving without a license and then you cannot afford counsel at your criminal trial.
Greg Palast, in his book The Best Democracy Money Can Buy, points out that tens of thousands of African Americans were eliminated from the rolls in Florida by Jeb Bush officials. Why? Allegedly because they had been convicted of a felony. Palast argues their real sin was being black.
Will the Democrats wake up to the efforts to target the most loyal constituency in their party? Is anybody home?
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