Court Filings in Support of Access to Justice

The Office for Access to Justice (ATJ), in partnership with the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division (CRT), has filed a series of Statements of Interest and amicus briefs related to access to justice issues:

Wilbur v. City of Mount Vernon: In 2013, ATJ and CRT filed a Statement of Interest in a class action lawsuit alleging that accused indigent defendants were systematically denied effective assistance of counsel. The Statement of Interest took no position on the merits of the case but requested that if the United States District Court found constitutional violations, it consider as part of its remedy workload controls for public defense providers and the appointment of an independent monitor to ensure compliance. On December 4, 2013, the district court found a systematic deprivation of the right to assistance of counsel and issued an injunction in favor of the plaintiffs that required the defendant cities to hire a part-time public defender supervisor tasked with monitoring and reporting on the delivery of indigent defense representation.

Hurrell-Harring v. State of New York: In 2014, ATJ and CRT filed a Statement of Interest to offer the Department’s views with respect to right to counsel. In this case, a class action pending before the Supreme Court of the State of New York, the plaintiffs alleged that, due to systemic failures in five New York counties, indigent criminal defendants had been constructively denied the right to counsel. The plaintiffs claimed that a lack of funding deprived public defenders of the time, resources, and ability to prepare cases or meaningfully represent their clients and amounted to the denial of counsel. In its Statement, the Department advised the court that under-resourcing public defense systems may force even otherwise competent and well-intentioned public defenders into a position where they are, in effect, a lawyer in name only. The case settled soon after the Department filed its Statement.

Varden v. City of Clanton: In 2015, ATJ, CRT and the U.S. Attorney for the Middle District of Alabama filed a Statement of Interest in a suit alleging that incarcerating individuals solely because of their inability to pay a cash bond violates the U.S. Constitution. The Statement evaluated the constitutionality of fixed-money bail practices and asserted that any bail or bond scheme that mandates payment of pre-fixed amounts for different offenses in order to gain pre-trial release, without regard for indigence, not only violates the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause, but also constitutes poor public policy. The filing advocated that courts make an individualized assessment of each defendant to determine whether the defendant is a threat to public safety or a flight risk, and argued that pretrial detention should be based on an objective evaluation of these factors, not on the defendant’s ability to pay. The case subsequently settled.

N.P. v. State of Georgia: In 2015, ATJ, CRT and the U.S. Attorney for the Middle District of Georgia filed a Statement of Interest in Georgia state court addressing right to counsel concerns for juveniles. The class action asserted that the public defense system in the Cordele Judicial Circuit has been so underfunded and poorly staffed that juveniles are routinely denied their right to legal representation. Based on legal precedent, the Department identified procedural safeguards that must be provided to children who appear in court. The Statement addressed the issue of waiver of counsel specifically and argued that that if a child decides to waive the right to an attorney, courts must ensure that the waiver is knowing, intelligent, and voluntary by requiring consultation with counsel before the court accepts the waiver. The case settled less than a month after the Department filed its statement.

Bell v. City of Boise: In August 2015, ATJ, CRT and the U.S. Attorney for the District of Idaho filed a Statement of Interest in federal court in Idaho addressing the criminalization of homelessness. The case was brought by homeless plaintiffs who were convicted under Boise ordinances that criminalize sleeping or camping in public. The Department’s Statement of Interest argued that the enforcement of the city of Boise ordinances prohibiting sleeping or camping in public outdoor places, on nights when there is insufficient shelter space in Boise to accommodate the homeless population, amounts to cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eighth Amendment. The Department stated in the brief that “[i]t should be uncontroversial that punishing conduct that is a universal and unavoidable consequence of being human violates the Eighth Amendment . . . Sleeping is a life-sustaining activity—i.e., it must occur at some time in some place.  If a person literally has nowhere else to go, then enforcement of the anti-camping ordinance against that person criminalizes her for being homeless.”

Kuren, et al. v. Luzerne County: In September 2015, ATJ and CRT filed an amicus brief with the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania in a class action lawsuit alleging that the public defense system in Luzerne County is so underfunded and poorly staffed that those accused of crimes are constructively denied their right to counsel under the Sixth Amendment. According to the plaintiffs, public defenders in Luzerne County are unable to engage in many of the basic functions of representation, including conferring with clients in a meaningful way prior to critical stages of their legal proceedings, reviewing client files, conducting discovery, engaging in motion practice, conducting factual investigations or devoting the time necessary to prepare for court.  In its brief, the Department asserts that, “the Sixth Amendment right to counsel requires more than the mere appointment of a member of the bar.” Further, the Statement also asserts that a civil action for prospective relief under the Sixth Amendment is viable when traditional markers of representation are systemically absent or compromised as a result of substantial structural limitations, “such as a severe lack of resources, unreasonably high workloads, or critical understaffing.”

Tucker, et al. v. State of Idaho., et al: In May 2016, ATJ, CRT and the U.S. Attorney for the District of Idaho filed an amicus brief with the Supreme Court of Idaho in a class action lawsuit alleging the systemic violation of Idaho indigent defendants’ Sixth Amendment right to counsel. According to plaintiffs, due to insufficient oversight, training and funding, public defenders across the state are unable to engage in many of the basic functions of representation, including meeting with clients in a meaningful way prior to critical stages of their legal proceedings, conducting a significant investigation into their case, filing substantive motions, retaining experts to challenge the prosecution’s allegations or devoting the  time necessary to prepare for hearings and trials. In its brief, the Department clarifies the distinction between filing a civil suit prior to conviction based on a state-wide constructive denial of counsel under Gideon v. Wainwright and a civil suit filed after conviction based on ineffective counsel in a particular instance under Strickland v. Washington. The amicus brief explains that the plaintiffs’ complaint “is not with their individual lawyers’ competence” but with the state’s systemic failure to provide legal representation to defendants who cannot afford it, a fundamental right recognized by the U.S. Supreme Court in Gideon. The Department’s brief also notes that there is no legal barrier to bringing such a civil suit prior to conviction, and moreover, that seeking prospective injunctive relief is the only way a court can identify and remedy system-wide noncompliance with Gideon. 

Walker v. City of Calhoun, Georgia: In August 2016, ATJ, CRT and the U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Georgia filed an amicus brief in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit in a suit challenging the constitutionality of the City of Calhoun, Georgia’s bail system. In his complaint, plaintiff alleges that he was forced to spend six nights in jail because he could not afford to pay the fixed $160 cash bond set by the City of Calhoun following his arrest on misdemeanor charges. The district court granted plaintiff’s motion for a preliminary injunction and ordered the city to implement constitutional post-arrest procedures.  In its brief to the federal appeals court, the Department addresses the legal framework that it believes the court should use to evaluate the constitutionality of bail systems. The brief asserts that a bail practice violates the 14th Amendment if indigent defendants are detained before trial without a court’s meaningful consideration of the individual’s ability to pay and alternative methods of ensuring presence at trial. The brief explains that pretrial detention should be based on an objective evaluation of these factors and a person should not be detained solely based on inability to pay. The Department also maintains that bail practices that do not account for indigence not only violate the 14th Amendment, but also constitute bad public policy.  This brief represents the Department’s first filing in a federal circuit court to address the constitutional requirements for state and local bail systems.

Stinnie et al. v. Holcomb: In November 2016, CRT, ATJ and the U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Virginia filed a Statement of Interest in a suit challenging the constitutionality of Virginia laws that automatically suspend the driver’s licenses of those who fail to pay court fines or fees. In their complaint, the plaintiffs alleged that their driver’s licenses were indefinitely suspended because they did not pay court fines and costs that they could not afford. They further alleged that 900,000 people in Virginia, or one in six drivers, have had their licenses suspended for failure to pay court debt. The Statement of Interest advances the United States’ position that suspending a driver’s license is unconstitutional if it is done without providing due process and without assessing whether the individual’s failure to pay was willful or the result of an inability to pay. A driver’s license is a constitutionally protected interest under clear Supreme Court precedent, and it cannot be suspended under the circumstances alleged to be occurring in Virginia without adequate notice and a meaningful opportunity to be heard first. Also, as the Supreme Court has affirmed, the Constitution prohibits punishing a person because of his or her poverty. Without taking into account an individual’s ability to pay, Virginia’s alleged practices result in indigent defendants having their driver’s licenses suspended because they cannot afford fines and fees. The Statement argues that, if the facts as alleged by plaintiffs are true, Virginia’s practices violate the due process and equal protection clauses of the 14th Amendment. 

Updated November 18, 2016

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