The Justice Department today commemorates the 60th anniversary of Gideon v. Wainwright, the landmark Supreme Court decision which held that the assistance of counsel is a fundamental right essential to a fair trial, and that the Sixth and Fourteenth Amendments require states to appoint attorneys for defendants who cannot afford to retain counsel on their own. The Office for Access to Justice (ATJ) is leading this effort by elevating the right to counsel and the importance of public defenders throughout the month of March.
“With its decision in Gideon, the Supreme Court transformed the American legal system by renewing the foundational promise of equal justice under law,” said Attorney General Merrick B. Garland. “There is still so much more work to be done to make the promise of Gideon real. The Justice Department recognizes the urgency and seriousness of these challenges. And we are committed to doing all we can to support our colleagues who have devoted their careers to public defense.”
“Twenty-five years ago today, former Attorney General Janet Reno, for whom I had the privilege of working, recognized that rigorous application of the Gideon decision secures the ‘fundamental fairness and accuracy of every criminal proceeding,’” said Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco. “Those words ring equally true today, as we strive to enhance access to counsel throughout the Bureau of Prisons and recognize the extraordinary contributions of hard-working public defenders and panel attorneys across this country.”
“Defending those accused of crimes is not just a nice thing to do, it is a constitutional requirement,” said Associate Attorney General Vanita Gupta. “That constitutional requirement helps ensure fairness and legitimacy — and for that reason, every actor in the criminal justice system should be invested in the work of public defenders. The Department of Justice stands with, and is taking concrete steps, to support public defenders as we work to make real the promise the Gideon decision made 60 years ago.”
Leading up to the anniversary on Saturday, March 18, ATJ, in partnership with Justice Department officials, launched a National Public Defense Day Tour focused on the appreciation and recognition of public defense. Through the Tour, the Department aimed to demonstrate commitment and responsiveness to concerns related to indigent defense in many communities. The National Public Defense Day Tour stops included:
Miami – Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco, joined by U.S. Attorney Markenzy Lapointe for the Southern District of Florida and ATJ Director Rachel Rossi, launched the tour in Miami, where they met with federal and local public defenders and discussed barriers to access to counsel in detention facilities. The Deputy Attorney General announced a comprehensive, 100-day review to ensure consistent, timely access to counsel in Bureau of Prisons pretrial facilities.
Tulsa, Oklahoma – Director Rossi met with the organization Still She Rises and local public defenders to discuss racial equity and holistic defense models of public defense.
Muscogee (Creek) Nation – Director Rossi visited Muscogee (Creek) Nation Attorney General Geri Wisner and tribal defenders to discuss unique issues in public defense in Tribal jurisdictions.
Las Vegas – Assistant Attorney General Kenneth A. Polite, Jr. of the Justice Department’s Criminal Division and U.S. Attorney Jason M. Frierson for the District of Nevada joined Director Rossi at the William S. Boyd School of Law School of Law at the University of Nevada to discuss with law students the importance of public defense careers. Both announced a collaborative effort with ATJ and the Criminal Division’s Office of Overseas Prosecutorial Development and Training program to visit with and learn about Ghana’s legal aid commission and the commission’s public defender division, and to consider the possibility of study exchange visits to the United States. Director Rossi also announced that ATJ will soon launch a series of visits with law schools across the country to promote public defense careers.
Nashville, Tennessee – Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Amy Solomon of the Office of Justice Programs joined Director Rossi to visit with members of the Public Defender Forensic Social Work Program and Nashville Public Defenders to discuss resource needs, and to announce the issuance of a joint dear colleague letter encouraging use of Byrne-JAG federal grant funding to resource public defense.
Des Moines, Iowa – Associate Attorney General Vanita Gupta and U.S. Attorney Richard D. Westphal for the Southern District of Iowa joined Director Rossi where they met with the Iowa State Public Defender and contract attorneys to explore the needs of bar panel and contract defense attorneys, learn about issues faced by rural defenders, and discuss the assessment of fees for public defense services.
“On this 60th anniversary of Gideon, the Department is elevating the perspectives and experiences of public defense professionals and impacted communities across the country,” said Director Rossi. “As the principal advisor to the Department on the Sixth Amendment, ATJ will fulfill its mission by continuing to center these voices.”
To conclude the National Public Defense Day Tour, the Justice Department will hold a reception at the Department of Justice with over 100 attendees from various public defender offices, public defense organizations, judicial officers and court staff, government officials, and international partners. The reception, which can be viewed live, will feature remarks from Attorney General Merrick B. Garland, Associate Attorney General Vanita Gupta, ATJ Director Rachel Rossi, and the Federal Public Defender for the Western District of Virginia Juval Scott.
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