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Published: Tuesday, 8/28/2007

The right to legal counsel

THE U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly held that defendants have the right to court-appointed legal counsel in any case where they could end up in jail. That s guaranteed by the Sixth Amendment to the Constitution, which says anyone so accused must have the assistance of counsel for his defense.

Because legal counsel is a basic right, we believe the Finkbeiner administration was out of line in suggesting not paying all of Toledo s public defender contract for 2007. City Council s law and criminal justice committee was right to oppose the move, which would slash the budget of the public defender in Toledo Municipal Court from the agreed-upon $536,012 to $400,000.

Shortchanging justice in that fashion would be unconstitutional.

Granted, money is tight for the city in this economic downturn. But some municipal operations cannot be compromised, and this is one of them. The city law department is already functioning at a near-skeletal level. Budget cuts the last two years have left fewer than one lawyer per courtroom. Further cuts would be damaging.

Cutting the public defender s budget would also be manifestly unfair to the poorest citizens and would invite a constitutional challenge. One way or the other, Toledo must provide indigent defendants with counsel. If the city got away with the cuts, and if Lucas County didn t absorb the difference, the city might end up paying out more money to hire costly private attorneys to represent the defenseless. The alternative would be for judges to dismiss cases when public defender money runs out. That s unacceptable.

Mayor Finkbeiner is smart enough to know that there s no way around the constitutional requirement. So what s really going on? Is the mayor s office simply posturing to give the appearance that it is cost-cutting? What is perfectly clear is that the right to counsel is a foundation of our legal system, and a primary principle of democracy.

The Sixth Amendment is short but it speaks volumes about the importance of treating every citizen fairly. Mayor Finkbeiner ought to read it again.

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