News Release

President of Nation's Criminal Defense Bar Calls for Federal Defender System Independence, and Voices Concern about Restrictions on the Participation of Federal Defenders in Historic Clemency Project

Washington, DC (August 22, 2014) – Theodore Simon, President of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL), today delivered an important address to a conference of federal defenders and panel attorneys in Cleveland, Ohio, in which he expressed concern about the state of federal indigent defense.

In his remarks, delivered during the very month in which the nation is honoring the 50th anniversary of the Criminal Justice Act, America's first indigent defense statute, Simon reiterated NACDL's commitment to a well-trained and resourced hybrid federal defender system with reasonably manageable caseloads. And he underscored the critical importance of moving toward a fully independent federal indigent defense system, pointing both to the crisis arising out of sequestration and to the recent decision of the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts (AO), under whose authority the Defender Services Office currently operates, to restrict federal defender and panel attorney participation in Clemency Project 20141:

"On July 31, 2014, the Administrative Office of the Courts issued a legal opinion concluding that there is no authority for federal defenders or panel attorneys to represent individual non-capital clemency applicants. While we take no position on the accuracy of that legal opinion, I believe that any system that would foreclose a lawyer from representing pending or former clients who have a chance to secure their freedom is a system that must change. It is simply unacceptable that a professional should be asked to remain on the sidelines when a client's liberty may be within reach."

While the AO has restricted federal defender participation in the Project, the federal defense community will continue to provide administrative support to the critically important mission of Clemency Project 2014, and will assist Defender clients by screening their files and providing their full case information to the volunteer lawyers who will represent them in their clemency petitions.  

Simon also noted that NACDL's Task Force on Federal Indigent Defense is continuing to study the current state of the federal indigent defense system. He said that he expects the Task Force to further reinforce the profession's commitment to a hybrid system of indigent defense, including public and community defenders as well as panel attorneys, and the importance of independence and adequate resourcing for the federal indigent defense function in order to ensure the vitality of the Sixth Amendment right to counsel for all persons accused of a crime, regardless of their ability to pay for representation.  "I am confident also that the Task Force will support appropriate efforts to see that the Sixth Amendment Right to Counsel is not treated as just another court service – subjected to the whims of bean counters who do not understand that effective assistance of counsel is not a commodity that can be rationed," Simon said.

1Clemency Project 2014 is a working group composed of lawyers and advocates including the Federal Defenders, the American Civil Liberties Union, Families Against Mandatory Minimums, the American Bar Association, and National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, as well as individuals active within those organizations – launched in January after Deputy Attorney General James Cole asked the legal profession to provide pro bono assistance to federal prisoners who would likely have received a shorter sentenced if they'd been sentenced today. Clemency Project 2014 members collaborate to recruit and train attorneys on how to screen for prisoners who meet the criteria announced by the Justice Department and assist prisoners who meet the criteria to find lawyers to represent them at no cost. Learn more at

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The National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers is the preeminent organization advancing the mission of the criminal defense bar to ensure justice and due process for persons accused of crime or wrongdoing. A professional bar association founded in 1958, NACDL's many thousands of direct members in 28 countries – and 90 state, provincial and local affiliate organizations totaling up to 40,000 attorneys – include private criminal defense lawyers, public defenders, military defense counsel, law professors and judges committed to preserving fairness and promoting a rational and humane criminal legal system.