March 9: Courtroom Injustice

No one brings suit justly,
   no one goes to law honestly;
they rely on empty pleas, they speak lies,
   conceiving mischief and begetting iniquity. 
They hatch adders’ eggs,
   and weave the spider’s web;
whoever eats their eggs dies,
   and the crushed egg hatches out a viper.
Isaiah 59:4-5

Last summer, a man in Kansas City was arrested for stealing some tools from his stepmother. He was charged with misdemeanor theft and transferred to a jail. He couldn’t afford to hire a lawyer for himself, and sat in jail forty days before seeing a public defender. The attorney told him that he had a crushing workload, and didn’t know when he could get to his case.

The accused faced the choice of waiting in jail for another six months before his attorney could prepare his case for trial, which the attorney thought was winnable, or he could plead guilty and get out sooner. Since he was married and had four children, the man took the plea. 

Meanwhile, his attorney resigned from he public defenders office, lengthening his ordeal again. By the time his plea had been resolved and he was sentenced to two years of probation, the man had spent five months in detention.

The right to defense counsel is enshrined in the Sixth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, alongside other cherished principles of legal justice, including the right to a trail by jury and the right to compel the state to prove its case against them beyond a reasonable doubt.

It is the right to a court-appointed lawyer which protects the poor and indigent from being abused by the criminal justice system. Both federal and state courts will appoint a government-paid attorney to represent someone who cannot afford it.

Unfortunately, this right is not always extended to the accused in a timely or equitablemanner. The result is that the rich and powerful tend to get “better” justice; the poor often get the dregs of a system which is better suited to those with means.

This is not only a contemporary American problem; justice has never been completely blind. The prophet Isaiah accused the rich of manipulating the Hebrew courts in exactly the same way. He complained that the course of justice was regularly perverted by those who did not speak honestly or bear true witness. He could see clearly that the poor faced a serious disadvantage in the courts, even though the Torah stated clearly, “You must not distort justice; you must not show partiality; and you must not accept bribes” (Deuteronomy 16:19).

In the case of the man who spent five months in jail without a trial, a class-action lawsuit was filed yesterday against the state of Missouri by the ACLU, which claims that there is a “constitutional crisis” in the state because the public defender system is chronically underfunded and understaffed.

In Texas, the situation is not much better. The Texas Indigent Defense Commission report that the number of indigent people receiving counsel increased by 42 percent since 2002, and has therefore asked the current state legislature to increase funding for indigent criminal defense. 26 states fully fund this type of defense; Texas is one of 17 states that covers less than half of this expenditure for counties, and commissioners don’t expect that this will increase this year.

It goes without saying that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” as Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. put it. If the poor don’t get a fair shake in our courts, can it be truly said that we are a nation of laws?

Prayer: God, we establish laws in order to maintain peace and stability. We desire an orderly society. But you desire that we practice justice. When we allow money and power to distort our system of justice, we are breaking your law. Forgive us. Amen.

Justice Challenge: On March 11, the ACLU will hold a “Resistance Training” town hall in Miami, Florida, and people throughout the country are invited to local “watch parties” to view the training and begin planning resistance actions in their communities.

In the Dallas area, the following two locations will host watch parties at 3:30 pm: 2511 Wedglea Dr, 601, Dallas, TX; and 2217H Clark St., Dallas, TX. For more information and more locations, visit PeoplePower.org