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Associate Attorney General Vanita Gupta Delivers Remarks at the Office of Access to Justice's Gideon Celebration


Washington, DC
United States

Remarks as Delivered

It is so great to see you, and I’ve got to see some old and dear friends I that haven’t seen in quite a while. And I have to say just before I start that I am grateful that you showed up at 4 p.m. on a Friday afternoon, but it doesn’t surprise me at all. But it’s so good to be in community with all of you, so thank you for coming and being here today with us at the Justice Department.

Thank you, Rachel Rossi, for the introduction, but most importantly for your leadership of our Office for Access to Justice, particularly given your own background as a former public defender and lifelong champion of civil rights. I don’t think a year ago we would’ve imagined being able to be in this place and doing this work with the kind of vigor that we are, and I’m grateful to you and to your team for doing everything you’re doing. So, thank you. And you deserve your own round of applause.

I am very grateful to work with Attorney General Garland every day. His powerful remarks are just a smidge of the demonstration of his very strong and demonstrated commitment to expanding access to justice. He asks about these issues all the time. He is committed to them. And it was really important that he was able to speak at the NLADA yesterday as well to mark the 60th anniversary.

And I want to acknowledge an incredibly special guest. We are so honored to have Abe Krash here today. It is so meaningful to us that we can honor that history and the doors that you helped open and the legal landscape that you helped change. Thank you again for being here today.

And last but perhaps most importantly, I want to thank you to all of you in this room, many of you I have worked alongside with for years. Many of you have been working for many decades on these issues, but you have been working so hard every day to make the promise and the protections of the Sixth Amendment real for your clients. Without adequately trained, well-resourced and available indigent defense, our justice system cannot function fairly. Every day, defenders answer this call with compassion, with resilience, with commitment, and too often with too few resources and in the face of daunting challenges.  

In 1963, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy said that because of Gideon, “the whole course of American legal history has been changed.”

Gideon wasn’t just a sea change – it was a promise, a promise to build a better, fairer system of justice. And sixty years later, as we take stock of our record to deliver on that promise, we see all too well how much work to do there is still left to do.

Some of you may know that I began my legal career at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, and my first set of cases involved representing men and women accused of crimes who could not afford to pay for their lawyers. In 2001, when I was doing this work, many states did not have institutional public defender offices – and unfortunately too many parts of our country still don’t today.

Public defenders today are overworked and undervalued. And many of you handle crushing caseloads with insufficient resources, and you do it with grit and determination, and you do it with zeal. It doesn’t have to be that way, and it should matter to all of us that it is. 

Defending those accused of crimes is not just a nice thing to do, it is a constitutional requirement. 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. 

Over the past two weeks, the Justice Department’s Office for Access to Justice (ATJ), joined by senior officials from across the department, commemorated the 60th anniversary of Gideon by lifting up the right to counsel, celebrating the importance of public defenders and highlighting important issues and challenges in our criminal justice system through a historic National Public Defense Day Tour.

The tour stopped in Miami, Florida; Tulsa, Oklahoma; the Muscogee (Creek) Nation; Nashville, Tennessee; Las Vegas, Nevada; and Des Moines, Iowa. Members of the Justice Department leadership joined Director Rossi at each of these stops, including the Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco, Assistant Attorney General for the Criminal Division Kenneth Polite and Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General for the Office of Justice Programs Amy Solomon. And I joined Director Rossi just earlier this week in Iowa.

At these tour stops, we met with local public defenders and others, and discussed elevating public defense as a career path, expanding racial equity, promoting holistic defense models, supporting the unique issues faced in tribal and rural communities, access to counsel in pretrial detention and much more.

In Des Moines, we talked with public defenders and contract attorneys who handle court-appointed cases about the unique challenges for indigent defense attorneys in rural areas.

Iowa, like many jurisdictions, relies heavily on contract attorneys to represent indigent clients. But according to the Iowa Bar Association, the number of available contract attorneys has actually dropped about 50% since 2014. And that shortage leads to court delays for indigent criminal defendants, almost a third of whom are juveniles.

Yet in spite of these challenges, the individuals I met in Iowa – including Iowa State Public Defender Jeff Wright and Supreme Court Justice Matthew McDermott – demonstrated an unwavering commitment to providing Iowans with the legal services they need and deserve.

As we head into National Public Defense Day, I am here to say that the Justice Department stands with you in facing these challenges.

And behind those words are concrete steps that the department is taking on issues important to all of you and all of us. Over the course of our tour, the department announced a number of deliverables.

In Miami, the Deputy Attorney General announced that the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) and Access to Justice program are conducting a comprehensive review of access to counsel in BOP’s pretrial facilities.

In Las Vegas, the Criminal Division and ATJ announced a partnership to examine overseas legal defense issues, specifically through an upcoming visit to Ghana’s legal aid commission and the commission’s public defender division. 

We also announced that ATJ is launching a series of visits with law schools across the country to promote public defense as a career.

In Nashville, the Office of Justice Programs and ATJ issued a joint letter to remind and encourage State Administering Agencies of the Byrne JAG funds and federal grant funding can be used to support public defense.

In Des Moines, I announced that ATJ has established a position focused solely on support for, and collaborations with, the state and local public defense community. 

With a dedicated attorney focused on state and local public defense, ATJ will promote expanded resources for public defense, amplify the voices of defenders and reinvigorate a Sixth Amendment statement of interest practice to protect federal interests in right to counsel issues.

We hope that the department’s tour, and today’s event, help shine on a spotlight on some of the work you all are doing day in and day out, as well as the collective work we have ahead.

So let me just say from the bottom of my heart, thank you for everything that you do to expand access to justice and fulfill the great promise of Gideon. Thank you.

Access to Justice
Updated March 17, 2023