News Release

Nation's Criminal Defense Bar Issues Major Report; Calls for Greater Independence for Federal Indigent Defense System

Washington, DC (Sept. 9, 2015) – After over 18 months of study, more than 130 individuals interviewed (including federal judges, federal defenders, Criminal Justice Act (CJA) panel attorneys, Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts (AO) personnel, and others, representing 49 states and all federal judicial circuits), hundreds of documents reviewed, and surveys conducted, the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL) today officially releases a major report — Federal Indigent Defense 2015: The Independence Imperative. The report, adopted by NACDL's Board of Directors at its recent annual meeting, reflects the significant work of NACDL's Task Force on Federal Indigent Defense and offers "Seven Fundamentals of a Robust Federal Indigent Defense System," which are set forth below.

The Task Force was directed to examine broadly the federal indigent defense system, covering the entire manner in which the federal indigent defense system operates. That said, over the past few years, several troubling developments in the administration of the nation's federal indigent defense system have highlighted its lack of independence. From the severe funding cuts and resulting systemic damage during sequestration in the fall of 2013 to the AO's demotion of the Defender Services Office from a "distinct high-level office" within the AO to its placement as one of the judiciary's many "Program Services," like Probation and Pretrial Services or Judiciary Data and Analysis, to the ways in which the lack of independence has played a key role in preventing federal defenders and panel attorneys from appointment to aid clients as part of a historic clemency effort undertaken by NACDL and others, the report documents the deficiencies of the current system.

The report also focuses the day-to-day adverse consequences of a system that is wholly at odds with the very first principle of the American Bar Association's Ten Principles of a Public Defense Delivery System — "The public defense function, including the selection, funding, and payment of defense counsel, is independent." The report details that many panel lawyers are forced to endure long delays to receive payment for their services and often face arbitrary cuts at the hands of judicial officers whose decisions need not be explained and cannot be challenged. The report also explores concerns regarding the methods by which counsel appointments are made in individual cases, as well as those inherent in appointments to serve on CJA panels, among other matters.

As explained by NACDL President E.G. "Gerry" Morris, "At his confirmation hearing, Chief Justice John Roberts explained that the role of a judge is like an umpire, ‘to call balls and strikes and not to pitch or bat.' This important report reveals that in today's federal indigent defense system, the umpire is doing far more than that. And we all know that umpires should not be deciding how, when, and under what circumstances players get paid or on which team they play."

NACDL Executive Director Norman L. Reimer said: "While there is much to be admired in the federal indigent defense system, its operation — unlike the prosecutorial function — under the structure of the judiciary, together with the seismic events of recent years — sequestration, demotion, and the clemency initiative, make a compelling case for greater independence."

"As reflected in the Seven Principles laid out in the report, this project has been guided by NACDL's unwavering commitment to the Sixth Amendment right to counsel and an independent, fully-resourced, hybrid public/private federal defender system of the highest quality," Reimer added.

NACDL's Seven Principles of a Robust Federal Indigent Defense System:

  • Control over federal indigent defense services must be insulated from judicial interference.
  • The federal indigent defense system must be adequately funded.
  • Indigent defense counsel must have the requisite expertise to provide representation consistent with the best practices in the legal profession.
  • Training for indigent defense counsel must be comprehensive, ongoing, and readily available.
  • Decisions regarding vouchers (i.e., payment to panel attorneys) must be made promptly by an entity outside of judicial control.
  • The federal indigent defense system must include greater transparency.
  • A comprehensive, independent review of the CJA program must address the serious concerns discussed in this report.

The full report, which includes an executive summary, as well as many of the documents to which the report cites, is available at www.nacdl.org/federalindigentdefense2015.

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And to learn more about NACDL's extensive work in the area of indigent defense, please visit www.nacdl.org/indigentdefense.

NACDL gratefully acknowledges the volunteer work of its Task Force on Federal Indigent Defense and Professor of Law Joel M. Schumm (Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law), who served without compensation as the Reporter for the Project. The members of the Task Force come from an array of practice backgrounds. They are as follows: Willis G. Coffey (Mount Vernon, KY), Josh A. Cohen (San Francisco, CA), Jerry J. Cox (Mount Vernon, KY), Michael P. Heiskell (Fort Worth, TX), Bonnie Hoffman (Chair) (Leesburg, Virginia), Norman R. Mueller (Denver, CO), David Patton (New York, NY), David M. Porter (Sacramento, CA), Cynthia W. Roseberry (Washington, DC), Ronald Tyler (Stanford, CA), Susan J. Walsh (New York, NY), Lisa Monet Wayne (Denver and Boulder, CO), and William P. Wolf (Vice Chair) (Rolling Meadows, IL).

Contacts

Ivan J. Dominguez, NACDL Director of Public Affairs & Communications, (202) 465-7662 or idominguez@nacdl.org for more information.

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 justice system.