Sunday, May 27, 2018
Opinion

Blumner: Innocent and poor? Tough luck

Retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor is rethinking the mess the court made by taking Bush vs. Gore. But she shouldn't stop there. While she's at it, O'Connor should reflect on what has happened since her disastrous 1984 decision in Strickland vs. Washington. O'Connor's majority opinion eroded the right to counsel by making it incredibly difficult for defendants to show that their court-appointed attorneys were ineffective. Since then, attorneys completely unprepared for trial and even those who have slept in court have passed the low, malleable bar her opinion set.

Of course, few lawyers are so inept that they will catch a few "Z's" at the defense table. But a public defender who is oppressively overloaded with cases amounts to the same thing — and there are plenty of those. Neither one can give their client's case enough attention for a prepared defense.

Yet that is the system we have today. Fifty years after Gideon vs. Wainwright established the right to counsel for the poor — a principle that the United States trumpets as central to fairness in an adversarial system and a bulwark against a tyrannical state — that right is in shambles.

Longtime advocate for the poor, Yale Law School lecturer Stephen Bright, says "in this country, you are better off being rich and guilty than poor and innocent."

Think about that. For the least among us, our vaunted system of justice resembles a conveyor belt.

Public defenders in places like Miami-Dade County, New Orleans and Luzerne County, Pa., have caseloads so onerous that it is often impossible to provide anything more than the illusion of representation. Throughout the country the indigent defense system is rife with overwhelmed lawyers handling hundreds of cases beyond what the American Bar Association says is the maximum that should be ethically allowed.

They meet their clients for the first time only minutes before the client goes before a judge to plead guilty and be sentenced. Even defendants who are innocent will take a plea just so they can get the process finished.

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder recently said the nation's indigent defense is in "a state of crisis."

The most obvious fix is money. Innocent people are getting convicted in Florida, according to findings by the Florida Innocence Commission, because the system is underfunded, especially public defenders.

But tough-on-crime politicians are not going to demand better representation for accused criminals or redirect scarce resources to fulfill the Constitution's requirement. It is up to the courts to force the matter.

Missouri courts are letting public defenders decline cases when their attorneys have reached a maximum caseload. It could be a national model to force the funding of more slots. The Florida Supreme Court is poised to decide a similar issue of excessive caseloads brought by the public defenders office in Miami-Dade County. (Oral argument was in June. What is taking so long?)

What is obviously missing is support from the U.S. Supreme Court — the one institution that could make Gideon's promise a reality.

On Monday, the court's five-member conservative majority crushed the little guy defendant again by giving Louisiana a pass when it failed to fund the defense of an indigent man charged with murder and armed robbery. The man waited seven years before being tried and convicted largely due to this lack of funding. Yet this wasn't enough for the court's conservatives to say his Sixth Amendment right to a speedy trial was violated. All four of the court's liberals dissented from the court's decision to dismiss the appeal rather than rule on its merits.

In 1963, the Supreme Court unanimously decided that Clarence Earl Gideon, a ne'er-do-well in Panama City, Fla., and by extension all others too poor to pay a lawyer, "cannot be assured a fair trial unless counsel is provided to him."

That is still true. What has changed is that today's Supreme Court, and the one that O'Connor graced, doesn't have the courage, compassion or stomach for the job of policing that right in a meaningful way. O'Connor should regret that, too.

Comments
Editorial: Welcome Bayshore changes still canít stop bad judgment

Editorial: Welcome Bayshore changes still canít stop bad judgment

Itís human nature in following any tragedy to imagine: How could this have been prevented? On that score, the city of Tampa responded appropriately to the deaths this week of a mother and her toddler whom police say were hit by a teenage driver racin...
Published: 05/25/18
Editorial: Filling Rocky Point lagoon to build townhomes is an empty-headed idea

Editorial: Filling Rocky Point lagoon to build townhomes is an empty-headed idea

One of the worst ideas in a long time in the field of urban planning received a blessing this month when the Hillsborough County City-County Planning Commission approved a land-use change for a project that calls for filling three acres of water insi...
Published: 05/25/18
Editorial: Searching for the real Adam Putnam

Editorial: Searching for the real Adam Putnam

Send out an Amber Alert for Adam Putnam. The red-haired, affable fellow who has served capably as a state legislator, member of Congress and agriculture commissioner is missing. In his place is a far-right caricature who has branded himself as a prou...
Published: 05/24/18
Updated: 05/25/18
Editorial: A strong economic case for restoring voting rights for felons

Editorial: A strong economic case for restoring voting rights for felons

Floridians are paying a steep price for a system that makes it as difficult as possible for people who leave prison to reintegrate into civic life. Gov. Rick Scottís clemency process isnít just archaic and cruel ó it also wastes enormous public resou...
Published: 05/24/18
Updated: 05/25/18
Editorial: Trump right to cancel North Korea talks on nuclear weapons

Editorial: Trump right to cancel North Korea talks on nuclear weapons

Regardless of the reason, the cancellation of the U.S.-North Korea summit to address Pyonyangís nuclear program is hardly the worst possible outcome of this high-stakes diplomatic gamble. President Donald Trump was unprepared, North Koreaís Kim Jong ...
Published: 05/24/18
Updated: 05/25/18

NFL kneels before the altar of profits

The owners of the 32 National Football League teams sent a wrongheaded and, frankly, un-American message to their players Wednesday: Expressing your opinion during the national anthem is no longer permitted."A club will be fined by the League if its ...
Published: 05/24/18

Editorial: A positive first step in ensuring student access at USFSP

As a task force sorts out countless details involved in folding the University of South Florida St. Petersburg back into the major research university based in Tampa, ensuring access for good Pinellas students remains a concern. An enhanced cooperati...
Published: 05/23/18
Updated: 05/25/18
Editorial: Banks still need watching after easing Dodd-Frank rules

Editorial: Banks still need watching after easing Dodd-Frank rules

Legislation that waters down the 2010 Dodd-Frank law and was sent to President Donald Trump this week is a mixed bag at best. Some provisions recognize that Congress may have gone too far in some areas in the wake of the Great Recession to place new ...
Published: 05/23/18
Updated: 05/24/18
Editorial: Honoring our fallen soldiers on Memorial Day

Editorial: Honoring our fallen soldiers on Memorial Day

The rising tensions with Iran, the resurgence of violence in the Mideast and the uncertainty over a nuclear disarmament deal with North Korea combine to create an unsettling time this Memorial Day. These grave threats to peace are another reminder of...
Published: 05/22/18
Updated: 05/25/18

Another voice: The chutzpah of these men

A new phase of the #MeToo movement may be upon us. Call it the "not so fast" era: Powerful men who plotted career comebacks mere months after being taken down by accusations of sexual misconduct now face even more alarming claims.Mario Batali, the ce...
Published: 05/22/18
Updated: 05/23/18