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Public Statements

Supporting the Right to Counsel

Floor Speech

Location: Washington, DC

Ms. JACKSON LEE. Mr. Speaker, I rise to offer a full-throated support of H. Res. 196, which upholds the Sixth amendment Right to Counsel, as laid out in the Supreme Court case of Gideon v. Wainwright.

The Supreme Court's landmark decision in Gideon v. Wainwright affirmed that everyone, whether rich or poor, has the right to an attorney in a criminal proceeding. Fifty years later though, sequestration's devastating cuts to federal defender services are jeopardizing the constitutional rights of Americans around the nation and ultimately resulting in higher costs--which is why this resolution--H. Res. 196--is utterly important. The case law and enunciation of this right began in Powell v. Alabama, in which the Court set aside the convictions of eight black youths sentenced to death in a hastily carried-out trial without benefit of counsel.

Justice Sutherland stated that due process always requires the observance of certain fundamental personal rights associated with a hearing, and ``the right to the aid of counsel is of this fundamental character.'' This observation was about the right to retain counsel of one's choice and at one's expense, and included an eloquent statement of the necessity of counsel. ``The right to be heard would be, in many cases, of little avail if it did not comprehend the right to be heard by counsel. Even the intelligent and educated layman has small and sometimes no skill in the science of law. If charged with crimes, he is incapable, generally, of determining for himself whether the indictment is good or bad. He is unfamiliar with the rules of evidence. Left without the aid of counsel he may be put on trial without a proper charge, and convicted upon incompetent evidence, or evidence irrelevant to the issue or otherwise inadmissible. He lacks both the skill and knowledge adequately to prepare his defense, even though he have a perfect one. He requires the guiding hand of counsel at every step in the proceedings against him. Without it, though he be not guilty, he faces the danger of conviction because he does not know how to establish his innocence

Clarence Earl Gideon, could not afford a lawyer to defend him in court, and he was convicted. Gideon challenged his conviction--all the way to the Supreme Court. The result was the landmark case Gideon v. Wainwright, which guarantees poor defendants in Houston, the state of Texas, and all around this great nation, the right to counsel in criminal cases. Indeed Mr. Speaker, just this weekend a horrific shooting took place in Houston that was reported all over--and just as with many crimes--our fine law enforcement officials set-out to find the perpetrators and it appears as if they have. It is in cases like these where the public's opinion is enflamed that Gideon is most importance--particularly in ensuring that the right persons have been apprehended.

Public defenders serve as the backbone of our legal system because they ensure that the Sixth Amendment right to effective counsel is maintained. It is critical that this body act to ensure that next year's sequestration cuts do not force federal defender organizations around the country to further reduce their operations, hindering their ability to provide competent and timely legal representation. This body must pass legislation to avert further cuts to defender services otherwise--it will result in an abdication of our constitutional duties, increased costs to the American taxpayer, and a severe degradation of our criminal justice system in Texas and beyond.

In this body we often disagree on the scope and breadth of recent budget cuts, but we must all work to ensure that a highly functioning criminal justice system is maintained and adequately funded. We have a responsibility to the Constitution to continue to fund this critically important program at workable levels. As we continue to debate a budget for fiscal year 2014, and the overall fiscal path for our nation, I urge my colleagues to address this critically important issue.

I urge my colleagues to Support this important resolution.

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