There is cause for optimism yet.
Last month, in a lawsuit challenging the quality of indigent-defense services in two cities north of Seattle, Washington, the U.S. Justice Department did a remarkable thing. It filed a Statement of Interest declaring that “[t]he United States has an interest in ensuring that all jurisdictions — federal, state, and local — are fulfilling their obligation under the Constitution to provide effective assistance of counsel to individuals facing criminal charges who cannot afford an attorney.”
The Department did not argue that the cities should lose, but if they did, it proposed that the court appoint an independent monitor to control the workloads of their public defenders. That’s never happened before, but then, the cities were alleged to have just two part-time lawyers handling 2,000 misdemeanor cases per year. And the situation is no better right now in many states, municipalities, and federal districts across the country. If the right to counsel is to mean anything, it must mean more than a warm, overworked, unprepared body sitting next to you.