The public workshop, sponsored by the Tennessee Bar Association and Legal Aid of East Tennessee, took place Monday afternoon at the Memorial Park Community Center, and voiced concerns that legal representation is not being considered a Constitutionally protected, fundamental right.
The portion of the public that this lack of legal support hits worst, Washington County public defender Jeff Kelly said, is the poorest section of the population. Funding for any new legislation that would provide this counsel would be one of the bigger issues, but members of the panel contend that publicly appointed civil lawyers would save public money in the long run.
Kelly contends that child custody and home matters should be covered as fundamental rights, as they clearly relate to the Pledge of Allegiance. He says he believes the loss of a child or shelter is a loss of life and liberty, thus earning Constitutional rights. Many of those people who go before a judge will not be able to represent themselves properly. Not only does this affect their lives, he said, it starts a chain reaction of broken homes and missed opportunities at a sound home environment.
Debra L. House, associate director of LAET, said that there are big economic impact studies in the works to show how well a program like this would benefit society, but there are more marginal reports they can point to now show this.
One example given by LAET Executive Director David Yoder was how much it costs taxpayers to have so many foreclosed homes that resulted from one parent or family member going to jail for an extended amount of time. Neighborhoods can go by the wayside and become more crime-filled, he said, which requires a larger police presence, thus costing the taxpayer more money than if the family was able to stay together.
Without counsel, Kelly and Yoder agreed, a person might not be able to give an actual account of the perhaps the good deeds and full picture of his or life, missing a chance to hold a family together, all because of one legal misstep.
Tennessee Chief Justice Gary Wade of Sevierville said in a video presented at the workshop that the right to counsel is a cornerstone of the American justice system and that they were making pro bono representation a top priority.
Putting a focus on this might be wise, said Don Mason, an attorney in Kingsport. He said U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder was using Tennessee as the anti-posterboy when speaking publicly of legal representation. Mason said Holder cited Tennessee as having six public defenders representating 10,000 cases of misdemeanors.
Showing the economic impact of providing public defenders is one way, but Johnson City attorney Tony Seaton has taken on the issue another way, by providing volunteer counseling and pushing to have his colleagues do the same. He said compensation is not his reward, and that’s the point of it all.
Seaton’s endeavored to help put a rural legal advice clinic in Mountain City, which will be opened in January, and says he spends more of half of his time working with volunteer legal representation. A push for bringing on more pro bono lawyers would help ease some of the pressure brought on by unrepresented clients seeking legal counsel.
Wade said in the video that if each lawyer would volunteer their services for one hour per month, it would be the equivalent of adding 56 full-time positions.
He and members of the panel shared stories of how their lives have been touched by someone who they’ve represented in the past who let them know how they turned their lives around to land a good job, go to college or start a family.
That’s all the compensation that Seaton and panelists needed.
Alenia Smith, an attorney at Smith, Booksh, and Farrell, often volunteers to represent large amounts of clients. She said she’ll take on 20 at a time, knowing that her expertise allows her to help them in ways they couldn’t help themselves.
She said even though Social Security checks can’t be legally garnered to pay debt, she’s seen people who pay $75 per check to outstanding debts. With the counsel of a lawyer, Smith said clients would be more informed of their options and legal rights.
Seaton gave a brief history of public defenders stemming back to Gideon v. Wainwright and said public defenders took a big hit under the Reagan administration, when public defenders in Tennessee went from 81 in 1981 to their current tally of 23.
As to how to fix the problem, the panel suggests informing the public of the benefits, or to put pressure on legislators. The money is there to adopt the extension of public defenders, but members of the panel said the public’s priorities have to be in place to do so.
More information about becoming a pro bono lawyer can be found at www.justiceforalltn.com.