Friday, September 14, 2007

Public Defenders Underfunded

Justice Schmustice

Justice is priceless, but it's not free
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

Posted: Sept. 9, 2007

In an op-ed piece in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the president of the State Bar, Thomas Bastings, complained - appropriately and accurately - that the entire justice system in Wisconsin is underfunded. I couldn’t agree more. After years of lobbying on behalf of the state Bar Criminal Law Section and the Wisconsin Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, I have drawn the only possible conclusion about our child-like legislature: they either don’t get it, or don’t care. This goes for both sides of the aisle. The willy nilly passage of tough-on-crime bills aside, they don’t recognize the triangle of courts, prosecutors and defense attorneys that must be equally funded not only for more just results but for pure functionality.

There are legitimate shortages on all 3 sides of the triangle but, for obvious reasons, I focus on the defense. Let’s start with the indisputable premise that every citizen in this country has an absolute right to the effective assistance of counsel (see, the Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution). That is the ultimate unfunded mandate in the eyes of most legislators and they want to pay rock bottom price. They need to step back and look at the forest for a minute.

The entire foundation of democracy rests on a reliable and fair legal system. Obviously many, many factors contribute to, or detract from, how fair that system is, the bottom line is that without it, people resolve their differences with bullets and car bombs (see, Iraq) or simply have authoritarian (or worse theocratic) governments. With Bush in office, we have seen a study slide into more centralized power and secrecy - hallmarks of a police state. It is defense attorney’s more than anybody else, who are institutionally designed to challenge these encroachments of freedom.

John A. Birdsall, Birdsall Law Offices, S.C.
135 W. Wells St., Ste 214, Milwaukee, WI 53203
414.831.5465 -