Wednesday, March 16, 2011

At what point does a budget crisis morph into a constitutional crisis?

According to an article in this week's Texas Lawyer, the bickering between Demopublicans and Republicrats over funding the federal government has put a stop to the payment of vouchers for attorneys taking appointments in federal court.
"Notices prominently displayed on the websites for the Northern District of Texas and the Western District of Texas let lawyers know that the two-week continuing resolution President Barack Obama signed into law extends federal funding until March 18, 2011, but it only provides enough funding to pay for vouchers that were processed but not paid during a recent suspension. 
The government will be unable to pay vouchers received after March 7, 2011. the notices on the Northern and Western Districts state that 'all vouchers that are submitted will be paid when funding is available.'"
At what point does this funding crisis infringe upon an indigent defendant's right to appointed counsel? At what point to private attorneys decide not to take on new federal appointments because of the uncertainty of getting paid?
"There is no doubt in my mind that this development will discourage criminal defense attorneys from accepting criminal appointments in the federal justice system going forward. We have overhead, we have staff, we have rent, we have families, we have health insurance, and to ask a private practitioner to forgo payments for services rendered for an indefinite period of time is untenable." -- David Finn, Dallas criminal defense attorney
The federal courts rely on private attorneys to take on cases so that the federal public defenders aren't swamped with too many cases. Without private attorneys willing to take on federal appointments, los federales would have to increase the number of public defenders -- something that is more costly than doling out cases to private attorneys.

Of course it doesn't help that there is no effective lobby for indigent defendants across this country. My guess is that, give a choice, most Americans would cut back on funding for indigent defense before cutting back on any programs near and dear to their hearts.

But this isn't just politics as usual. We're talking about our Sixth Amendment right to counsel - a right that belongs to all of us, regardless of our economic or social status.

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