THE BLOG
08/26/2014 12:19 pm ET Updated Oct 26, 2014

Boehner's Constitution of Convenience

ASSOCIATED PRESS

People who live in glass houses shouldn't throw stones. Especially when your glass house is the House of Representatives. Speaker of the House John Boehner made headlines last month, when he launched a misguided lawsuit against President Obama for ostensibly violating "his constitutional authority." Yet if anybody is treading on the Constitution, it is Boehner himself. Speaker Boehner and his conservative caucus have shown a blatant disregard for the Constitution's Sixth Amendment, which guarantees criminal defendants "the assistance of counsel." In the process, they have failed to meet their basic constitutional responsibilities.

Boehner is cynically using the very process he refuses to fund for others less fortunate. In announcing his decision to sue the President, Boehner made the anodyne observation that "the legislative branch has an obligation to defend the rights and responsibilities of the American people." These rights include those contained in the Sixth Amendment, which specifies the procedures of criminal prosecution. Notably, the Amendment protects the fundamental rights of criminal defendants to a speedy trial and to be represented by legal counsel.

Congressional Republicans' extreme budget cuts threaten the core of the Sixth Amendment. Since 2010, Congress slashed hundreds of millions of dollars from the federal judiciary and federal public defense programs. Simultaneously, Congressional Republicans allowed states to enact draconian cuts to public defense. From Michigan to Mississippi, state legislators balanced their budgets on the backs of poor Americans who rely on public defenders. States rights are all well and good, but states do not have the right to violate the Constitution. Despite efforts by Democrats in Congress to stop the damage, Congressional Republicans refused to increase appropriations and provide reasonable levels of funding.

The results have been catastrophic. And the victims are some of the most vulnerable people in our society: low-income Americans trapped in a biased justice system. As noted by the ACLU and other advocacy organizations, the "deep cuts to the federal public defenders' budget" resulted in "significant layoffs, 15-20 day furloughs, and the complete elimination of defender training." Continuing on this dangerous path, according to the advocacy coalition, would "decimate the federal defender system." On the state level, the consequences have been equally devastating. According to the Brennan Center for Justice, many state public defenders spend as little as six minutes per case because of paltry funding. The Brennan Center also found that public defenders often juggle "more than 300 cases at one time."

Gideon v. Wainwright (1963) and Argersinger v. Hamlin (1972) are unequivocal: the Sixth Amendment of the Constitution entitles criminal defendants to effective legal representation. Congress has the responsibility to secure this right with appropriate funding. And it is not doing so. Low-income Americans are paying a very real price for this constitutional abdication.

Tea Party Republicans frequently pontificate about the Constitution. The 112th Congress, in which John Boehner was elevated to Speaker, began with a ceremonial reading of the document "for the first time ever." The House Republican Caucus introduced a rule in 2011 that requires all legislation to "cite its specific constitutional authority." Republicans routinely allege that President Obama's actions menace the Constitution. To quote Republicans in Congress, America faces a "constitutional crisis" because "King Obama" has "rewritten the Constitution for himself." But when it is time to actually stand up for the Constitution, these sermonizing politicians cannot meet even their most rudimentary responsibilities. America doesn't need politicians who lecture about the Constitution; we need politicians who follow it.

Conservative Republicans don't stop at undermining public defense. They also embrace extreme cuts to civil legal assistance. While not protected by the Sixth Amendment, civil legal aid is a vital component of the safety net. Every year, it helps 1.8 million low income Americans facing everything from domestic violence to foreclosure. Like criminal legal aid, it is also egregiously underfunded. Almost every House Republican supported a 2011 plan to chop nearly 20% from the annual appropriation of the Legal Services Corporation (LSC), the nation's primary provider of civil legal aid. For some Republicans, these severe cut to LSC did not go far enough. 170 Republicans, or 70% of the Congressional Republican Caucus, subsequently voted to eliminate all funding for the LSC.

Fortunately, the Obama Administration and Congressional Democrats have successfully blocked the most radical reductions in public defense. Attorney General Holder and Solicitor General Verrilli have been tireless advocate for reversing the cuts and establishing an equitable judicial system.

Ironically, Speaker Boehner resorted to the American justice system to sue President Obama, the very system he has worked relentlessly to underfund for indigents. Instead of suing Obama, he should start fixing the system he and his colleagues broke.

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