No person in the United States can be put on trial for their life or liberty, or indeed any criminal penalty down to the smallest traffic fine, without access to a lawyer to provide expert assistance. That principle was established by the 6th Amendment in 1789, although the actual right to counsel remained spotty until Clarence Earl Gideon's case famously went to the Supreme Court in 1963. The Gideon ruling established that any criminal defendant in any court had a right to an appointed lawyer if they couldn't afford one themselves. But the 6th Amendment covers only criminal cases. Millions of Americans who can't afford lawyers go to civil court every day unassisted and lose their homes, their children, their savings, their independence.
Twice in the last two weeks, Justice Clarence Thomas has written alarming opinions that call into question fundamental constitutional protections. In one, he disputed the right to counsel for those accused of crimes; in the other he called for revisiting fundamental press freedoms established more than 50 years ago. Although these views are still in the minority on the court, Thomas' opinions help legitimize what would be a radical undermining of essential rights. Few Supreme Court decisions are more central to our criminal justice system than the 1963 ruling in Gideon vs. Wainwright, which held that a person being tried in state court and facing a possible prison sentence has the right to state-appointed legal counsel. That guarantee was the logical culmination of a series of decisions beginning in the late 19th century that applied the provisions of the Bill of Rights to state and local governments, not just to the federal government.
Since the Supreme Court decided Gideon v.Wainwright in 1963, states have been required to provide a government-paid lawyer to criminal defendants who cannot afford one, and for nearly six decades Gideon has been a celebrated part of this country's constitutional bedrock. But last month, Justice Clarence Thomas took a narrow case about the right to appeal criminal convictions and turned it into an attack on the entire Sixth Amendment right to counsel. Thomas' effort to undo a central criminal justice system safeguard speaks to a sad truth about our courts: Too few judges have any experience representing indigent criminal defendants, and without more public defenders on the bench, the rights of criminal defendants can never be fully secured. This is hardly a new problem but it has been exacerbated by Trump, who has yet to appoint a single public defender to the federal bench. The parties in Garza v. Idaho, the Supreme Court case decided last month, did not question Gideon, and they did not question that defendants have the right not just to any lawyer, but one that is competent and effective.
President Donald Trump released his proposed 2018 federal budget Thursday, and among the many government agencies the budget would eliminate is the Legal Services Corporation (LSC), which helps fund legal representation for victims of domestic violence. The LSC was created by Congress in 1974 to fund civil legal aid programs and offices providing lawyers to low-income Americans in civil disputes. The largest group of cases LSC-funded attorneys work are family law cases, which often include victims of domestic violence seeking to extricate themselves from dangerous situations, secure protective orders and gain custody of children. Read: Immigration News: Mexico Creates Legal Aid Centers Across The US To Help Immigrants Through Trump's Executive Orders According to the LSC's 2015 annual report, the most recent available, LSC funding helped close 755,774 legal cases in 2015, and 116,704 of those involved domestic violence. More than 520,000 of the clients the LSC helped in 2015 were women, the report said.
On February 25, when the GOP candidates gathered in Houston for a debate, nearly two weeks had passed since Justice Antonin Scalia's sudden death, and the future of the Supreme Court was dominating the campaign. Vowing to appoint a "principled constitutionalist," Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) slammed previous Republican presidents for nominating justices who proved to be insufficiently conservative. "The reality is, Democrats bat about 1,000," he said. "Just about everyone they put on the court votes exactly as they want. Republicans have batted worse than 500. More than half of the people we put on the court have been a disaster." To Cruz and his allies, Chief Justice John Roberts Jr., appointed by George W. Bush, falls into the "disaster" category for his votes preserving the Affordable Care Act. So does Justice Anthony Kennedy, nominated by Ronald Reagan, for siding in favor of legalizing same-sex marriage. Even Scalia, whom Republican candidates have effusively praised for his "originalist" interpretation of the Constitution, occasionally surprised his ideological brethren by siding with the court's liberal wing. If a Republican (even Donald Trump) appoints the next Supreme Court justice, he won't be looking for another Roberts, Kennedy, or even Scalia. Instead, he will seek another Samuel Alito--whose rulings on issues from abortion to unions to affirmative action never deviate from the conservative line.