Constitutional Law - Right to Counsel - Department of Justice Files Statement of Interest Supporting Meaningful Juvenile Right to Counsel - Statement of Interest of the United States, N.P. Ex Rel. Darden V. State

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Constitutional Law - Right to Counsel - Department of Justice Files Statement of Interest Supporting Meaningful Juvenile Right to Counsel - Statement of Interest of the United States, N.P. Ex Rel. Darden V. State


Constitutional Law--Right to Counsel--Department of Justice Files Statement of Interest Supporting Meaningful Juvenile Right to Counsel.--Statement of Interest of the United States, N.P. ex rel. Darden v. State, No. 2014-CV-241025 (Ga. Super. Ct. Mar. 13, 2015).

"The Constitution of the United States guarantees adequate counsel for indigent defendants, and the Department of Justice is committed to ensuring that right is met," said Attorney General Loretta Lynch in September 2015. (1) Yet this commitment is a relatively recent development for the Department of Justice (DOJ). In 2010, the DOJ launched the Access to Justice Initiative to help improve justice systems that serve people unable to afford lawyers. (2) Since then, the DOJ has assumed an unprecedented role in addressing constitutionally inadequate state provisions of counsel. Critical to this active role has been the DOJ's nascent strategy of filing statements of interest to support the right to counsel in state courts. (3) Recently, the DOJ broke new ground in this effort, filing a statement in N.P. ex rel. Darden v. State, (4) a class action lawsuit alleging systemic deprivation of juveniles' right to counsel, (5) to assert--for the first time--the United States's interest in children's due process right to counsel. (6) One month after the filing, the N.P. parties settled, submitting a joint consent decree that promised to remedy the alleged right-to-counsel violations. (7) Apart from offering a potentially persuasive interpretation of constitutional law, the N.P. statement--considered with previous DOJ filings--suggests that DOJ participation in state right-to-counsel litigation may be a powerful tool for mitigating the institutional obstacles such litigation has traditionally faced.

On January 7, 2014, indigent children and adults facing criminal prosecution in Georgia's Cordele Judicial Circuit (the Circuit) filed a class action lawsuit in Georgia superior court claiming that the right to counsel "is routinely violated or reduced to a hollow formality" in the Circuit. (8) Specifically, the N.P. plaintiffs alleged that "[c]hildren routinely appear in a juvenile court without counsel" and that some children are even "tried and sentenced without counsel despite their desire to be represented by counsel." (9) The complaint further claimed that the Circuit's public defender office is so "severely understaffed and grossly underfunded" (10) that public defenders "are unable to provide representation in all of the courts and cases in the Circuit." (11) Accordingly, detainees "regularly languish in jail for weeks or months" (12) without assistance of counsel, even though Georgia law requires public defenders to assist clients "not more than three business days after" their arrest and application for counsel. (13) Thus, the plaintiffs argued, poor criminal defendants in the Circuit lack any meaningful right to counsel. (14) They are instead merely "processed through the courts in assembly-line fashion." (15)

The N.P. plaintiffs primarily grounded their request for relief in the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. (16) Invoking the Supreme Court's landmark decisions in Gideon v. Wainwright (17) and In re Gault, (18) the plaintiffs emphasized that the right to counsel attends "every indigent child accused of a delinquent act and adult accused of a crime who faces the loss of liberty." (19) Yet, the plaintiffs argued, the Circuit public defender office's caseloads "vastly exceed national standards[,] ... mak[ing] it impossible" for public defenders to perform even the "basic duties of an attorney." (20) Accordingly, the plaintiffs sought injunctive relief to require Georgia to provide meaningful and timely counsel to all indigent children and adults facing loss of liberty in the Circuit. (21)

On March 13, 2115, the DOJ filed a statement of interest in N.P., directly addressing--for the first time in its history--children's due process right to counsel in state courts. …

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