The right to counsel in criminal cases is key to a fair criminal justice system. Prior to the Texas Fair Defense Act, low-income defendants in some parts of Texas were languishing in jail for weeks or months before getting a court-appointed attorney and, in some cases, the appointed attorneys were grossly unqualified to handle the cases. Our research also found that the quality of justice varied from county to county — with no consistent or fair method for selecting qualified attorneys.
Our Work: Texas Appleseed helped spearhead vital reform of indigent defense practices in Texas, which ultimately resulted in passage of the Fair Defense Act in 2001. We helped unveil the plight and neglect of these Texans, found through our comprehensive research of Texas counties. After the bill’s passage, Texas Appleseed’s study with the Equal Justice Center resulted in the first in a series of reports studying Fair Defense Act implementation. This work has formed the foundation of Texas Appleseed’s ongoing efforts to provide better legal representation to juveniles and to persons with mental disabilities.
Results: The Fair Defense Act fundamentally changed when and how lawyers are appointed to represent poor people accused of a crime in Texas. For the first time, it required all criminal courts in Texas to adopt formal procedures for providing appointed lawyers to indigent defendants. Legal experts have hailed the passage of the Act as the most important piece of indigent defense legislation in the country in the last quarter century. Since the passage of the Fair Defense Act, indigent defendants in many Texas counties are now getting better-qualified attorneys appointed to their cases in an appropriate amount of time. Counties now appoint attorneys based on standards, , instead of relying solely on judges’ discretion — thereby removing the risk of favoritism and cronyism in those appointments. It also established compensation procedures for experts and investigators in some cases involving indigent defendants.
- U.S. Supreme Court Rothgery Decision, June 2009. The U.S. Supreme Court issues a decision in Rothgery upholding indigents’ right to counsel in a case lodged by the Texas Fair Defense Project. The 8-1 ruling stated: Officials violate the Sixth Amendment when they fail to appoint counsel within a reasonable time after indigent defendants have their initial appearance before a judge or magistrate and are informed of the charges against them.
- Fair Defense Act Passes, 2001. The law required that all criminal courts in Texas adopt formal procedures for providing appointed lawyers to indigent defendants, allowing for prompt appointment of qualified attorneys.