Gideon is Rising
I want to share with everyone the optimism I have for the future of public defense and the Orleans Public Defenders Office (OPD). I am excited because all across the country we as public defenders are redefining ourselves, reasserting ourselves and living up to ourselves. More than 50 years ago, in Gideon v. Wainwright, the United States Supreme Court stated we are necessary for fairness and justice in our criminal courts, and we are now breathing in what that means. Sometimes forsaken and minimized, I believe today – truthfully – Gideon is rising.
I say rising because what is happening now with Gideon is not new. It is not some new interpretation of the law or change in statute. We were told 50 years ago how important our job is, what difference we are supposed to make, and for whatever reason public defenders did not believe it or maybe just over time we forgot. We buried our obligation, our duty and our challenge. Our U.S. Supreme court told us we are fundamental to the existence of justice, and I believe OPD is beginning to live up to the promise and duty of the right to not just counsel, but justice.
OPD is more organized. OPD now is administering grants which allow us to better serve clients and showcase our value and smarts to our community. Specifically, our grant to implement best practices in Miller v. Alabama cases (where children are facing mandatory life sentences) and our new Alternatives to Incarceration Project grant (ATIP) will provide enhanced services to clients, saving many years of freedom and opportunity for our clients. Moreover, our newly-renewed grant to reform funding for public defense statewide has attracted a coalition of stakeholders and decision makers from north and south Louisiana. The Louisiana Campaign for Equal Justice (LCEJ) has impressive momentum and an impressive group of leaders working to insure its success.
OPD is receiving attention and recognition by important institutions and stakeholders. While OPD does not endorse candidates for elective office (including judges), candidates – incumbents and challengers – aggressively courted OPD staff, recognition of our organization as a valued constituency. OPD continues to be regularly consulted on criminal justice policy, and our office is now a regular part of the City of New Orleans Budget. Also, a lot of ink (or digital memory) is spent covering public defender issues. And it is not all negative. In fact, most stories are sympathetic. A media audit 2 years ago, found 96% of our news coverage was positive or neutral. The perception of public defenders as unpopular is a myth. The public has a great deal of respect for our work.
On the national front, courts are recognizing the important role we play, and how the Sixth Amendment demands we have the resources to live up to our duty to defend and insure justice. Court decisions in Washington (Wilbur v. Mt. Vernon), Missouri (Missouri Public Defender Commission et al v. Waters and Orr) and Florida (Public Defender, Eleventh Judicial Circuit of Florida v. State of Florida) make clear our role to insure justice for poor people. Further, these decisions challenge us to challenge the systems at work against our clients and our clients' communities.
Explained another way, in the movie Unforgiven, a reporter looked to the hero (played by Clint Eastwood) after Eastwood just shot up an entire jail, including an unarmed man. The reporter said, "You just shot an unarmed man."
Eastwood replied, "He should have armed himself." These decisions stand for the proposition that we get to arm ourselves – we are entitled to the resources we need to do our jobs which are of course fundamental to the existence of justice.
Gideon is rising. The evidence is all around us. I challenge all of us to not be afraid to demand our place, our fundamental place at the table of justice.