PJC In The News

Ten years in and picking up steam

A retrospective on the National Coalition for a Civil Right to Counsel

By John Pollock and Mary Deutsch Schneider

Published in the May-June issue of the Clearinghouse Review

As Gideon v. Wainwright, the landmark U.S. Supreme Court case that recognized a right to a lawyer for criminal defendants, turns fifty this year, the National Coalition for a Civil Right to Counsel is celebrating its tenth anniversary. These two events are not mutually exclusive: the right to counsel in criminal cases and the movement to establish a right to counsel in civil cases involving basic human needs are intertwined. One need look only at the collateral effects of denial of counsel in each area on the other, the similar level of importance of the interests at stake, and the fact that civil and criminal legal aid providers often have the same clients. Former Vice President Walter Mondale, who, as Minnesota attorney general, authored the Gideon Supreme Court amicus brief signed by twenty-two attorneys general in support of the right to criminal counsel, spoke in 2009 on breaking down the wall between criminal and civil cases:
In truth, the criminal/civil distinction is often of wholly theoretical interest when you’re about to be deprived of your children, committed to a mental institution, foreclosed from your home, fired from your job, or a vast range of other civil proceedings, many of which are being pressed by the economic crisis that is hitting poor people, and all of us today—that could have life or death consequences, even though they’re called just civil.
Examining how the effort to establish a parallel (but not identical) right to counsel in basic human needs civil cases began and has developed is thus fitting in this year of celebrating the achievement of a right to counsel in criminal cases.

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