In Defense of Public Defenders

22 Mar, 24

Dear Friends,

This week, we reflect on a landmark ruling and the work that remains.

The promise of adequate representation is at the root of American democratic ideals of liberty and justice. Everyone deserves equal protection under the law when their freedom is on the line—justice can’t be contingent on money, race, or gender.

Sixty-one years ago this week, in Gideon v. Wainwright, a unanimous U.S. Supreme Court affirmed the promise of the Sixth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution: people have the right to a defense lawyer in criminal cases, regardless of ability to pay. To do otherwise would be “offensive to the common and fundamental ideas of fairness.” The landmark decision recognized that criminal court judges can’t deliver justice when people accused of crimes don’t have access to a lawyer and adequate representation.

Unfortunately, as we reflect on the anniversary of Gideon, the ideals of equal protection and fundamental fairness for all people in our criminal courts remain merely aspirational in Harris County.

Despite some progress, Harris County’s indigent defense system still disproportionately relies on a broken appointed counsel system, where judges pick the lawyers for impoverished people in their courtroom, with few checks and balances on spending or quality control. The result is attorneys with hundreds of cases that exceed recommended caseload limits and, for at least one attorney, a million dollars paid out by the county in a year.

Defense counsels are vital to protecting due process and justice in our courtrooms, so when our system impedes the quality of indigent counsel, people are disproportionately subject to unjustly losing their freedom because of how much money they have. Public defenders better protect the rights of those presumed innocent because they have centralized systems in place with caseload limits, mentoring, training, supervision, investigative tools, and holistic services staff. These safeguards reduce the likelihood that clients will return to the criminal justice system and secure more just results for the accused, victims, and their families.

We have a moral obligation to make investments in systems that ensure all persons, regardless of their economic status, are treated equally under our law.

The Indigent Defense Committee, which I co-chair, is working to make Harris County’s indigent defense system a model for the nation, with a focus on public defense expansion. On Gideon’s 61st anniversary, let’s recommit to moving the realities of justice in Harris County closer to the ideal by creating a better public defense system


Rodney Ellis