Despite the Sixth Amendment to the Constitution and a line of federal court decisions guaranteeing the right to effective counsel in criminal cases, Texas fails appallingly -- in fact, is the worst state in the country -- in providing lawyers for indigent defendants accused of crimes.
Under the Texas system, judges decide how much local tax money is to be spent on counsel for indigent defendants. In some counties, appointed lawyers in serious felony cases get no more than $350 for total representation. You get what you pay for.
And a Dallas Times Herald series revealed that many judges appoint lawyers who have contributed to their election campaigns. All judges in the state are elected.
In a survey in March by the State Bar of Texas of judges with criminal jurisdiction, more than 10 percent admitted that they favor lawyers who are their political supporters, and an additional 13 percent said they took financial contributions into account, but rarely.
The American Civil Liberties Union's National Prison Project documents even more startling violations of simple justice in Texas:
"Indigent defendants wait in jail for up to six months before a lawyer is first appointed to represent them, and longer before they have a chance to first speak with the lawyers."
As I have noted before in this column, at least three appointed counsel have slept through testimony in Texas trials that led to death sentences.
Among many other illustrations of the subversion of due process in Texas, two severely disabled defendants were imprisoned for four years -- each on trial for minor charges -- because appointed counsel did not know the procedures to have them transferred to a mental hospital.
Accordingly, this year the entire Texas Senate and House passed a reform bill without an objection by a member of either party. It would have taken the appointment power away from judges and placed it in an "appointing authority" supervised by county commissioners. That authority would be mandated to create and make public a list of qualified lawyers.
Under this centralized system, it would be more difficult for politically connected lawyers to get assignments. In addition, if an indigent defendant asked for an attorney, one would have to be appointed within 20 days. If one were not, a hearing would be held and a judge could appoint a lawyer. The defendant would not be released.
Also, rural counties would have the authority to create regional public defenders' offices with full-time lawyers. And county auditors would be required to submit annual reports on the nature and quality of counsel for the jailed poor.
Among those strongly urging Gov. George W. Bush to sign the bill were the NAACP, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, the National Council for La Raza, the Association of Criminal Defense Attorneys and Michael Sharlot, dean of the University of Texas Law School. On June 20, the compassionate conservative governor vetoed the bill because, he said -- in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary -- "Judges are better able to assess the quality of legal representation."
Elizabeth Alexander, director of the ACLU National Prison Project, notes that Bush, in vetoing "a major civil rights bill," continues to ensure that:
"Each time a lawyer meets his client for the first time 15 minutes before a hearing only to urge the client to plead guilty so that the judge can clear his trial calendar and the lawyer can turn a quick profit . . . and each time a judge demands a campaign contribution from a lawyer in exchange for appointments, it will be on Gov. Bush's record -- and should be on his conscience."
The governor has been accused of not being sufficiently specific on issues. But now he has been utterly clear in his indifference to, or ignorance of, a fundamental constitutional right.
Furthermore, Bush has specifically declared himself in favor of a constitutional amendment punishing flag desecration. His willingness to radically diminish the First Amendment now also is manifest.
Will reporters on the campaign trail follow up these developments by asking the Republican front-runner -- and Al Gore -- their views on the incumbent president's violations of constitutional rights such as habeas corpus? I doubt they will. Bush's veto of the Sixth Amendment should have been a significant national story. It was not.