Attorney James Funt Adds Legal Perspective to Justice Gap Discussion Panel
We are honored that WGP Attorney James Funt was selected to be part of a panel discussion on the WHYY-FM Radio Times
show hosted by Marty Moss-Coane. Attorney Funt lent his expertise and legal perspective to a discussion that explored the challenges states are facing as a result of the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark decision 50 years ago that requires free legal representation in criminal cases for defendants who are unable to afford to pay their own attorneys.
Attorney Funt pointed out that the Supreme Court decision led to the creation of public defenders offices throughout the country. “Some have done rather well, and the Philadelphia public defenders office is a model, and others aren’t doing so well. But all public defenders offices are faced with the constant issue of funding,” he noted.
Host Moss-Coane called on Attorney Funt to give an overview of the events that led to the infamous Gideon v. Wainwright decision. As he explained, the case stems from the 1961 arrest of 51-year-old Clarence Earl Gideon for burglary of a Florida pool hall. Gideon was forced to represent himself in the courtroom after a lower court judge denied Gideon’s request for free representation by counsel, saying it was not a death penalty case. After being found guilty and sentenced to five years in prison, Gideon wrote to the Supreme Court from his prison cell and in 1963 successfully won his appeal in the Gideon v. Louie L. Wainwright, corrections director, ruling. It stated that under the Fourteenth Amendment, state courts are required to provide free legal counsel in criminal cases to those unable to afford their own attorney. Gideon’s burglary case went back to the lower court where he was assigned a lawyer. After hearing compelling evidence, the jury returned a not guilty verdict in less than an hour.
As Attorney Funt pointed out during the live on-air panel discussion, “The great thing about the Gideon decision was that an uneducated man with literally a pencil scribing on prison stationary could have access to justice in the highest court of the land is a remarkable celebration of our access to justice by indigent people. The question now is how do we honor what he went through in order to finally get to where we believe we need to be in terms of access to justice for indigent folks?”
A 2012 Rand study pinpoints challenges that include the availability of public funds and the competency of legal representation. In an analysis of homicide cases in Philadelphia, the study found that court-appointed attorneys did not have the same kind of outcomes as public defenders. The study further raised concerns of whether taxpayer monies are being wasted due to a lack of funding for quality representation. In Pennsylvania, individual counties decide how monies get disbursed.
As Chairman of the Criminal Justice section of the Philadelphia Bar Association, Attorney Funt sees first hand the challenges faced by the courts, many of which stem from public and political perception.
“The decision mandates that resources that were going somewhere else now have to be diverted towards poor people. That has created class warfare of sorts where poor people all are lumped together and vilified as just being criminals,” he explained. “And that becomes difficult for political will to fund cases when you have working people saying, ‘Why should I provide my tax dollars to some poor criminal. I have to pay for my own lawyer.’ There becomes a real difficulty in trying to divest ourselves from that internal debate to convince the powers that be to get adequate funds for specific cases. Akin to teachers, we have to teach people of the value of lawyers. We have to educate people to create the political will to fund the cases better.”
In the end, the panel concluded that although a lawyer costs money, the cost-saving returns to society are so large that it far outweighs the cost of having a lawyer. Furthermore, the court system can do good work by respecting this fundamental right and making sure there is competent counsel, but also work smart by properly funding court-appointed legal representation, which in turn, saves taxpayers’ money through lower incarceration rates.
Listen to the Panel Discussion on the WHYY-FM Radio Times show hosted by Marty Moss-Coane