Pleading the Sixth: In honor of the 50th anniversary of Gideon v. Wainwright, Sen. Patrick Leahy introduced a new bill – the Gideon’s Promise Act – to give the U.S. Department of Justice authorization to sue states, counties and attorneys that fail to uphold the Sixth Amendment right to counsel. Included in the bill is new technical assistance money to help states improve indigent defense services and avoid costly litigation.
“It shall be unlawful for any governmental authority, or any agent thereof, or any person acting on behalf of a governmental authority, to engage in a pattern or practice of conduct … that deprives persons of their rights to assistance of counsel as protected under the Sixth Amendment and Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States.” Thus states the new Gideon’s Promise Act, a bill introduced by Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont), the chairperson of the United States Senate Judiciary Committee, on March 18, 2013, to honor the 50th anniversary of Gideon v. Wainwright. Whenever the U.S. Attorney General “has reasonable cause to believe that a violation” of the above statement has occurred, the proposed bill authorizes that Attorney General to seek to obtain “appropriate equitable and declaratory relief to eliminate the pattern or practice.”
Importantly, “officials or employees of any governmental agency with responsibility for the administration of justice, including the administration of programs or services that provide appointed counsel to indigent defendants,” may be subject to such a lawsuit by the Department of Justice.
Upon introduction of the bill, Sen. Leahy noted in a press release that “[w]e are on notice that a constitutional right is consistently being violated and, if we are to call ourselves a country of laws, it is our obligation as a nation, and particularly as the Congress, to take action and make a change.” Gideon’s Promise Act acknowledges that states need help in meeting the constitutional obligation to provide competent counsel. As such, the Department of Justice cause of action is delayed two years to allow states and counties to attempt to fix systemic deficiencies in the delivery of indigent defense services before being subjected to litigation. And, the bill would require the Department of Justice to provide $5 million in technical assistance per year for each of five years (2014-2018) to help states reform the indigent defense programs.
“I remain committed to ensuring that our criminal justice system operates as effectively and fairly as possible. Unfortunately, we are not there yet,” Leahy said. “Americans need and deserve a criminal justice system that keeps us safe, ensures fairness and accuracy, and fulfills the promise of our Constitution for all people. This bill will take important steps to bring us closer to that goal and I urge all Senators to support this legislation.”