U.S. Rep. Ted Deutch, D-Fla., one of the top Democrats on the U.S. House Judiciary Committee, is once again championing the “Status of the Sixth Amendment Act” to protect Americans’ right to counsel.
This week, Deutch paired with U.S. Reps. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-DC, and Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill., to bring the proposal back.
“The Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution provides that ‘in all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to…have the Assistance of Counsel for his defense.’ Since 1972 the U.S. Supreme Court has recognized that people facing misdemeanor charges that can result in a jail sentence have the right to a lawyer. According to the National Center for State Courts, 70 percent to 80 percent of all criminal cases each year are misdemeanor charges which can result in fines or a term of imprisonment of less than one year,” Deutch’s office noted. “Unfortunately, an estimated one in every four people charged with a misdemeanor and facing the possibility of a jail sentence is not represented by a lawyer. The ‘Status of the Sixth Amendment Act’ would require states to report to the Department of Justice the number of individuals, including juveniles, being processed through the criminal justice system without legal representation.”
Deutch, who chairs the U.S. House Ethics Committee, weighed in on Wednesday on why he had brought back the bill.
“The Sixth Amendment is a fundamental individual liberty in our country, giving the accused the right to counsel to help them navigate the criminal justice system,” said Deutch. “Unfortunately, over time it has left behind a quarter of individuals who have been charged with misdemeanors that could lead to prison time. Without their constitutionally-guaranteed legal counsel, a person may be wrongfully convicted of a misdemeanor, which could then affect future employment or make them ineligible for critical social service assistance. To fix the problem, we need to better understand the problem; equipped with data, the Department of Justice and Congress can begin working with the states to rectify this gap in representation.”
“The right to legal representation is a one of the most fundamental tenets of our nation’s criminal justice system, yet far too many Americans are left navigating it alone to face possible unjust imprisonment or fines,” said Norton. “Our bill is essential to provide Congress with the first hard data to measure the consequences of restricted access to a lawyer.”
“I am proud to join my colleagues in spearheading the “Status of the Sixth Amendment Act,” Schakowsky said. “Our Constitution guarantees the right to counsel in all criminal prosecutions, but all too often we see cases where defendants, particularly low-income Americans, are left without legal representation. Our bill will shed a public light on the potentially unconstitutional practices of the state and local courts and help to craft policies that ensure all people, regardless of financial means, have the access to an attorney as required by law. We must turn this constitutional right into a reality.”
The bill has been sent to the Judiciary Committee but, so far, there is no counterpart over in the U.S. Senate.
Kevin Derby can be reached at Kevin.Derby@floridadaily.com.