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National Right To Counsel Movement in NPR's Justice Talking and National Symposium

The last week in March 2006 may eventually be seen as a turning point for the national movement to achieve recognition of a right to counsel in civil legal matters.  The week's events, and the Public Justice Center's role, are highlighted below:
 
1.  The civil right to counsel was the topic of the day at the University of Pennsylvania Law School's annual Sparer Symposium on March 28.  Advocates, scholars, and bar leaders from across the country gathered in Philadelphia to discuss how to improve access to counsel for low-income individuals and families in civil cases.  In his keynote address, American Bar Association President Michael Greco spoke forcefully about the civil right to counsel:  "Nothing else defines our nation's commitment to equality more than our dedication to ensuring that people can vindicate their rights," he said.  He called on the nation to engage in a "serious discussion about the civil right to counsel."  Debra Gardner, Legal Director of the Public Justice Center shared the podium at the opening session with Laura Abel, Deputy Director of the Poverty Program at the Brennan Center.  Debra outlined the historical context for a civil right to counsel and Laura discussed lessons to be learned from the nation's experience implementing Gideon v. Wainwright on the criminal defense side.  Several scholars focused on particular populations of low-income litigants or types of litigation which they believe make particularly strong cases for the right to counsel.  Others explored strategic considerations in achieving the civil right to counsel, including University of Maryland School of Law professors Michael Millemann and Steve Schwinn.  Papers presented at the conference will be published in the Temple Political and Civil Rights Law Review next winter.  (Based in part on original reporting by Brennan Center staff.)
 
2.  At the close of the symposium, NPR's Justice Talking with Margot Adler recorded a debate at The Constitution Center between Daniel Greenberg, former head of the Legal Aid Society of New York City and a representative of the Atlantic Legal Foundation.  Portions of that debate will be included in this week's airing of Justice Talking, which will be devoted entirely to the civil right to counsel.  See http://www.justicetalking.org/viewprogram.asp?progID=541.  Listen for Justice Talking on WYPR (88.1 FM) this Sunday at 2:00 pm, or on WETA (90.9/89.1 FM) this Sunday at 4:00 p.m.  Or you can listen to the full program anytime this week at the web site above.  Debra's question to the fellow from the Atlantic Legal Foundation about whether unrepresented parents in custody cases are "in a fair fight" may or may not make the final cut for the airing, but we can tell you his answer was no.  He went on to say that life is often not fair.  That may be true, but we thought the government was supposed to be.
 
3.  Later that same evening, a Philadelphia-based cable television program aired a one-hour live debate on civil right to counsel.  Legal Aid's own Wilhelm Joseph and ABA President Michael Greco appeared on It's Your Call with Lynn Doyle and debated a local Federalist Society chapter president and a spokesperson from an organization called Citizens for Common Sense.  See http://www.cn8.tv/channel/article.asp?lArticleID=4321&lChannelID=617&subhead=abtshow for a general description of the program.  PJC has requested a copy of the airing, but by all accounts, our advocates carried the day.
 
4.  On March 29, President Greco met with his Presidential Task Force on Access to Justice, chaired by the Honorable Howard Dana, a justice of the Supreme Judicial Court of Maine, to continue work on finalizing a policy resolution supporting recognition of a right to counsel in civil cases involving basic human needs, to be presented later this year to the ABA House of Delegates for its adoption.  Steve Sachs, mentor to the PJC's Appellate Advocacy Project, and the Honorable Robert M. Bell serve on the Dana Task Force.  Debra Gardner has been active in providing input to the Task Force from its inception.  The proposed resolution, along with a very powerful report in support of it, should be available for wide distribution next month.
 
5.  Finally, on March 30, the annual Equal Justice Conference, jointly sponsored by the ABA and the National Legal Aid and Defender Association, convened.  During the 3-day conference, which focuses largely on increasing access to justice and in particular on pro bono contributions to that effort, the civil right to counsel continued to gain ground.  President Greco delivered a keynote address to the entire assembly on Friday, March 31.  His passion and vision for the civil right to counsel stirred the crowd.  Later that afternoon, a well-attended workshop session was hosted by the National Coalition for a Civil Right to Counsel, which Debra Gardner coordinates.  The workshop included presentations from coalition members on garnering pro bono and law school support for the movement and then picked up where the Sparer Symposium left off, beginning the process of answering the most provocative questions to come out of that event.
 
The work of preparing for and engaging in a significant national dialog on the civil right to counsel continues, and PJC's role in that effort is growing every day.

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