The U.S. criminal justice system typically pits defense lawyers against government prosecutors. Now, defense lawyers who represent poor clients are about to get some major help from their usual adversaries.
The Justice Department is on the verge of launching a new program to help low-income people receive legal help. It's called the Access to Justice initiative, and one of the top constitutional lawyers in the country is taking a leave of absence from Harvard to spearhead the project.
Although there has been no official announcement, a Justice spokesperson has confirmed the plans.
Professor Laurence Tribe of Harvard Law will begin work in Washington next week as senior counselor for Access to Justice. He will coordinate with judges and lawyers across the country with the goal of finding ways to help people who cannot afford a lawyer — a circumstance known in legal terms as indigent defense.
As he tries to improve indigent defense, Tribe will also look to programs outside of the criminal justice system, such as drug courts and mental health courts. He will work on issues related to criminal, civil and family courts.
The Constitution's Sixth Amendment guarantees that every criminal defendant will have access to a competent lawyer, but many states don't keep that promise. Some states don't have the money or the systems in place to provide people with good lawyers.
With more than 80 percent of defendants unable to pay for their own lawyers, problems with indigent defense reach the core of the criminal justice system.
During a speech at a recent indigent defense symposium in Washington, D.C., Attorney General Eric Holder said the system is in "crisis." The conference was the first such Justice Department-sponsored event in a decade. To support it, the federal government paid to fly more than 200 indigent defense experts from around the country to Washington.
"Some might wonder what the United States attorney general is doing at a conference largely about the defense that poor people receive in state and local courts," Holder told the symposium audience. "Although they may stand on different sides of an argument, different sides of a courtroom, the prosecution and defense can and must share the same objective: Not victory, but justice."
Some indigent defense experts were afraid the conference would be a lot of happy talk about helping poor people, without any action. They were delighted to hear about the Access to Justice initiative.
"We're excited that they're moving forward," said Jo-Ann Wallace, president and CEO of the National Legal Aid and Defender Association. "It demonstrates that they recognize how important public defense is for a fair justice system.
The project will use a reallocation of money already in the Justice Department's budget, according to a Justice official.
Although it is easy to caricature this as a liberal project to help criminals go free, several top conservative lawyers reached by phone were very enthusiastic about the project.
"It's very appropriate and fitting, and it's consistent with the finest traditions of the Department of Justice," said Ken Starr, dean of Pepperdine Law School.
"This is not the 'Department of Public Prosecutions' — but it is much more broadly a department that is seeking justice, whether in the civil arena or the criminal justice system."
Starr called Tribe a "brilliant" choice to lead the initiative.
Charles Cooper, who served in the Reagan Justice Department, agrees. He has tried cases both with and against Tribe. "I have no doubt that Professor Tribe will be extremely effective as a teacher and as an advocate and as a scholar of the law in this new calling," Cooper said.
Tribe begins his new job Monday.