There was no reason to mince words.
This week, Senator Chuck Grassley, the Republican chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, spoke bluntly about the epidemic of mostly poor people who are not provided with counsel when they are charged with a misdemeanor. He said: "No Supreme Court decisions in our history have been violated so widely, so frequently, and for so long."
Grassley's address to the committee marked a rare bipartisan moment in today's notoriously feisty legislature. It’s also the product of a counterintuitive, but persuasive, argument by conservatives, who argue that increasing the funding for public defenders will actually reduce the size of government all.
The vast majority of people convicted of crimes are convicted for misdemeanors, Grassley noted. But the right to an attorney is handled state by state or county by county—and widespread failures to provide public defenders can lead to unnecessary convictions, at a high cost to society.
"These constitutional violations cause serious repercussions. People who are convicted of misdemeanors, whether they received legal representation or not, may have problems obtaining a job for the rest of their lives. That hurts them. It hurts the economy. It hurts all of us," Grassley said.
"State systems need to be reformed," he added.
Grassley's passion on the subject is matched by some of the biggest players in the conservative political landscape: the überfunding Koch Brothers. Last year, Koch Industries started pouring tens of millions of dollars into providing scholarships and trainings for public defenders.
Charles Koch put out a statement, according to the New York Times, saying the move was an effort "to make the Sixth Amendment’s guarantee of an individual’s right to counsel a reality for all Americans, especially those who are the most disadvantaged in our society.”
When unrepresented people get sent to jail without a fair legal shot, it increases both the size of the government, and the potential for government abuse, testified Bob Burochowitz, a former public defender from Seattle who was brought to testify in front of the Senate committee.
"Every day people across the country go to court and end up convicted of crimes without ever having the opportunity to talk with a lawyer and to have the help of a lawyer to negotiate their case with a prosecutor or advocate for them to a judge or jury," he said. "The protection that the Sixth Amendment contemplated for the individual against government mistake or abuse is simply not provided in those cases."
On the Democratic side, Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) said lawmakers “cannot turn a blind eye" to the failure of living up to the Sixth Amendment. "Our constitution requires more" that what is being done, he added.
Among the recommendations that were made during the testimonies, members of both parties advocated passing the Gideon's Promise Act, which Leahy proposed in 2013. The act would provide some federal funding to state and local governments in order to build up the amount of public defenders across the nation. It would also authorize the Attorney General to seek a lawsuit against local or state governments that systematically deprive people of their right to counsel.
Both sides also discussed the possibility of reclassifying certain crimes as civil offenses, citing the systemic issues that contributed to unrest in Ferguson, Mo., where there were almost as many arrest warrants issued in 2013 as there were residents. The source of most of those warrants were minor crimes, stemming from traffic stops.
"When misdemeanor defendants aren’t given counsel, no one can challenge the legality of a traffic stop," said Grassley, who chairman of the hearing.
"What is particularly troubling about these constitutional violations is who is committing them. It is our judicial system. The states and the state courts must adhere to the Bill of Rights. Respect for our courts as well as the rule of law demands that."
Daniel Rivero is a producer/reporter for Fusion who focuses on police and justice issues. He also skateboards, does a bunch of arts related things on his off time, and likes Cuban coffee.