In their own defense

Friday, December 10, 2010

LAURENCE H. TRIBE has left the Justice Department, last weekbut the mission he was tapped to lead - broadening and strengthening legal services for the poor - should carry on.

The Harvard law professor spent nine months as the senior counselor for access to justice. He says he is returning to Massachusetts to be near medical professionals who have been treating him for a benign brain tumor; he plans to resume teaching at Harvard next fall.

Mr. Tribe and Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. deserve credit for bringing increased attention to the sorry state of defense for indigent people some four decades after the Supreme Court articulated a constitutional right to counsel. Mr. Tribe also should be applauded for being a pragmatist. He acknowledged that funding increases for perennially short-changed programs are unlikely in these dire economic times and so focused the efforts of his team on ways in which existing networks might better serve the legal needs of the poor. Those include the use of technology to reach more clients in rural communities and increased assistance from the Justice Department for defender training.

The Obama administration should build on this foundation by appointing another legal heavyweight to push ahead with the formidable challenges that remain.

The access-to-justice team should also continue to coordinate with groups that have done extraordinary work in this area. The National Right to Counsel Committee of the nonprofit Constitution Project, for example, offered smart recommendations in a 2009 report on how to address the system's major failings, including creation of statewide independent public defenders' offices to ensure that those in all jurisdictions are given a fair shake. The National Legal Aid & Defender Association has collected information about how the increasing criminalization of relatively minor offenses has sapped legal resources from defendants facing serious charges and lengthy sentences. Its suggestion to lower penalties for minor breaches deserves a look.

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