As many know, one of the defining characteristics of our American Justice System is the right to counsel. This is the right that says, whether you are rich or poor, you are entitled to a defense when the government attempts to strip you of life or liberty. And, if you cannot afford counsel, then one will be appointed to defend you. See Gideon v. Wainwright, 372 U.S. 335 (1963).
Tragically though, many have cause to lament that the poor are not afforded as good of a defense as those who can pay for one. Click here to read “New Report Shows Outdated System Failing Lawyers, Indigent Clients in Tennessee” by Lurene Kelley on www.justcity.org. Or click here to review an in-depth, three-part examination of indigent defense in America by the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.
And, according to the Tennessee Bar Association, “Tennessee court-appointed attorneys [are] among the lowest paid in the country.” However, things might be looking up, as “[a] bill to increase the rate court-appointed attorneys are paid to $100 per hour was filed Feb. 12 in the General Assembly. Senate Bill 1009 and House Bill 1025 were introduced with bipartisan sponsorship in both houses, with Sen. Lee Harris, D-Memphis, and Sen. Steve Dickerson, R-Nashville, sponsoring the bill in the Senate and Rep. Mike Stewart, D-Nashville, and Rep. Andy Farmer, R-Sevierville, sponsoring the bill in the House. The proposal — a Tennessee Bar Association policy initiative in this legislative session — would enact the first increase in the hourly rate for these attorneys since 1994.” Click here to read the full article. To reiterate and emphasize, court-appointed attorneys in Tennessee have not had a raise in over 20 years. And, for comparison, according to the American Institute for Economic Research‘s “Cost of Living Calculator,” $10,000 in 1994 is comparable to $15,945.95 present day.
On the note of a personally-held belief, for any of us to have rights, we must defend those very same rights for all of us. That goes not only for our right to counsel, but the rights said counsel might have to defend in any given case. This bill (SB1009/HB1025) may be heard by Senate and House committees as early as next week. That this bill has bipartisan support hopefully bodes well, and hopefully soon Tennessee will no longer merit the notorious distinction for affording only court-appointed attorneys who are among the lowest paid in the country.