Governing - Few functions of government are as consistently underfunded as providing legal defense for the poor. Although the problem remains serious, there are indications that, at least in some places, it's starting to get addressed.
Missouri's top public defender drew attention to this issue last month when he attempted to assign a case to Gov. Jay Nixon to lighten his overwhelming workload due to the state's failure to fully fund his office.
"Given the extraordinary circumstances that compel me to entertain any and all avenues for relief," said Michael Barrett, "it strikes me that I should begin with the one attorney in the state who not only created this problem, but is in a unique position to address it."
Under pressure from lawsuits and the Obama administration, some states are now seeking ways to improve and invest more in public defense. ... Several states and local jurisdictions are being sued by the American Civil Liberties Union and other groups over their failure to offer adequate legal defense for the poor. Among those currently facing lawsuits are California, Louisiana, Michigan, Montana and Washington state.
The U.S. Supreme Court made clear that the right to an attorney is constitutionally mandated in its 1963 decision in Gideon v. Wainwright. But public defense has remained chronically underfunded. In many states, attorneys are handling felony caseloads four or five times greater than the levels recommended by the American Bar Association.