ACLU Condemns Governor Bush's Veto of Civil Rights Bill to Provide Lawyers to Poor

June 20, 1999 12:00 am

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Sunday, June 20, 1999

WASHINGTON–Today will be remembered as the day that Governor George W. Bush stood at the courthouse door to block long overdue reform of the state’s system for providing lawyers for poor people accused of crime.

By vetoing a major civil rights bill unanimously passed by the Texas Legislature to effect that reform, Governor Bush says that poor people should be treated like second—or even third—class citizens in our criminal justice system.

The governor’s action is neither compassionate nor conservative—for what could be more compassionate than ensuring that poverty does not guarantee a prison sentence, and what could be more conservative than adhering to the Constitutional guarantee of the right to a fair and speedy trial.

For more than a decade, lawsuits, press reports, and investigations conducted by the State Bar of Texas have repeatedly documented instances of deplorable representation throughout the state. According to the Spangenberg Group, the nation’s most experienced investigators of indigent defense, the state’s system for providing lawyers to poor people who are accused of crime is the only one of its kind in the entire nation. Under the Texas system, state judges—who run for office every four years—spend local tax money on any lawyer they choose for each individual case. It is nothing less than cronyism run rampant.

At the behest of Senator Rodney Ellis, the Texas Legislature has considered proposals to reform indigent defense at least since 1993. In 1998, Texas’s House of Representatives conducted an interim study that recommended reform. This year, Senator Ellis again introduced reform legislation. Following testimony at a public hearing, the Senate Criminal Jurisprudence Committee unanimously approved the bill. Next, the entire Senate and House passed the bill without objection by a member of either political party.

The ACLU deplores today’s decision by Governor Bush. Because of his veto, each time a lawyer sleeps during his client’s trial, 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, each time a poor person waits months in jail before first seeing a lawyer, and each time a judge demands a campaign contribution from a lawyer in exchange for appointments, it will be on Governor Bush’s record, and should be on his conscience.

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