Income inequality is very much in the news. There is no doubt that income inequality and differences in economic status lead to unequal access to justice. Discussion of unequal access and education on causes and solutions is an important role for our Bar Association. But paramount is for us to work to connect all members of our society to access to justice. At our local level, we must do everything we can to ensure that the most vulnerable of our neighbors have the same ability to find justice in the courts as the wealthiest.

The inequities of power, wealth and advantage run rampant through our society. Much like society at large, the criminal justice system has traditionally struggled in its goal to provide equal justice for all, regardless of financial wealth. The right to counsel at government expense is a bedrock principle that allows an indigent criminal defendant to level the playing field between those with funds and those without. The debate surrounding cash bail reform in California has highlighted the role money still plays in one aspect of our criminal justice system. It is convincingly argued by advocates of bail reform that California’s current system of cash bail allows those who have money to quickly buy their release from custody while those who don’t have money will languish in jail while waiting for their cases to be adjudicated. This allows a potentially more dangerous individual quick release simply because they have money while an indigent arrested for a less serious offense sits in jail simply because they lack funds to pay bail:

In terms of timing, the evidence unequivocally demonstrates that arrestees who post the full amount of bail listed on the Bail Schedule can secure release more quickly than any other category of arrestees. This is true even when an arrestee who posts the full bail amount has been charged with a more serious offense than the indigent arrestee. By way of example only, the Sheriff released on bail within several hours of arrest a person who had been charged in what appeared to be a serious assault case involving an axe and requiring SWAT team management, while an indigent, disabled individual who was also arrested for assault (her “deadly weapon” was a cane) was held in custody for five days because she could not afford the felony bail. There, the assault charge was ultimately reduced to a misdemeanor, and the individual was released on her own recognizance. Consistent with this example, research indicates that individuals charged with serious or violent offenses who are able to secure release usually do so by posting bail.
(Buffin v. City and County of San Francisco (N.D. Cal., Mar. 4, 2019, No. 15-CV-04959-YGR) 2019 WL 1017537, at *5, footnotes and citations omitted.)

A core premise of this argument is that all should have equal access to pre-trial release, regardless of economic status. The use of bail schedules, which set presumptive bail amounts without consideration of ability to pay, leading to pre-trial incarceration for those who can’t afford bail, was held unconstitutional by the Federal Court for the Northern District of California:

Given the consequences which flow from an extended duration of pre-arraignment detention, the Court finds the deprivation significant. Accordingly, plaintiffs have shown that the Sheriff, through use of the Bail Schedule, has significantly deprived plaintiffs of their fundamental right to liberty by sole reason of their indigence.
(Buffin v. City and County of San Francisco, supra, 2019 WL 1017537, at *18.)

The fair administration of justice requires that the playing field be leveled as much as possible for indigent individuals accused of crimes. A critical aspect of this is the right to counsel:

That government hires lawyers to prosecute and defendants who have the money hire lawyers to defend are the strongest indications of the widespread belief that lawyers in criminal courts are necessities, not luxuries. The right of one charged with crime to counsel may not be deemed fundamental and essential to fair trials in some countries, but it is in ours. From the very beginning, our state and national constitutions and laws have laid great emphasis on procedural and substantive safeguards designed to assure fair trials before impartial tribunals in which every defendant stands equal before the law. This noble ideal cannot be realized if the poor man charged with crime has to face his accusers without a lawyer to assist him.
(Gideon v. Wainwright (1963) 372 U.S. 335, 344.)

The logic of the bail reformers equally applies to the right to counsel. Ours is not a wealth-based system of justice. It is a fairness and equality-based system. To deny an indigent the right to appointed counsel and allow a wealthier defendant the benefit of a hired attorney would raise the same issues about wealth-based access to justice as cash bail does. The debate and factual conclusions surrounding bail reform would lead one to the conclusion that the right to counsel for an indigent accused of a criminal offense is safe from challenge or elimination.

Shockingly, that right is under attack. In a dissent joined by Justice Gorsuch, Justice Clarence Thomas argues that the United States Constitution only requires allowing an accused to employ a lawyer and that the Gideon decision is an incorrect interpretation:

Third, our precedents seek to use the Sixth Amendment right to counsel to achieve an end it is not designed to guarantee. The right to counsel is not an assurance of an error-free trial or even a reliable result. It ensures fairness in a single respect: permitting the accused to employ the services of an attorney. The structural protections provided in the Sixth Amendment certainly seek to promote reliable criminal proceedings, but there is no substantive right to a particular level of reliability. In assuming otherwise, our ever-growing right-to-counsel precedents directly conflict with the government’s legitimate interest in the finality of criminal judgments. I would proceed with far more caution than the Court has traditionally demonstrated in this area.
(Garza v. Idaho (2019) 139 S.Ct. 738, 759.)

The language that Justice Thomas uses strongly suggests his belief that the Constitution cannot allow the government to prevent an accused from employing counsel to assist them, but does not require the government to provide a lawyer to an accused who cannot afford one. This interpretation would create another massive inequity in our criminal justice system between those who have money and those who don’t. For all the reasons that the bail reform advocates cite, it would logically follow that the right to an appointed counsel for those who cannot afford to hire their own lawyer is a bedrock right that levels the playing field for those who lack funds.

Failing to provide an indigent individual accused of a crime with appointed counsel would create a justice system based more on access to funds than equal treatment of all. As the makeup of the United States Supreme Court changes, the right to appointed counsel may be another liberty interest that faces elimination. This is yet another urgent reason that it is incumbent upon us as individuals and as an association to do everything we can to preserve and protect equal access to justice, regardless of economic status.