Impact of race and poverty on effective legal representation the topic of Oct. 24 talk at Stetson Law

Stephen Bright, the president and senior counsel of the Southern Human Rights Network, discussed “The Impact of Race and Poverty on Effective Assistance of Council” during a noontime lecture for Stetson Law students on Oct. 24.

Stephen Bright talked with students on Oct. 24 in the Great Hall.

Stephen Bright talked with students on Oct. 24 in the Great Hall.

Bright discussed the history of justice in the U.S. and inequalities in legal representation for the poor.

“The criminal justice system today is very much defined by the past,” said Bright.

He discussed the failure of the justice system after the Civil War  to protect the victims of lynchings and punish the perpetrators. Bright also explained the importance of the historic Supreme Court case, Gideon v. Wainwright.

“The dream of Gideon is not a dream. It’s a constitutional requirement,” said Bright. “You must give people lawyers.”

Bright said that three months after the Supreme Court’s decision in Gideon, the legislature established public defenders in every judicial circuit. Florida became a model for its approach to public defender work. However, the need for public defenders quickly outgrew the resources available.

“Without necessary resources, case loads become crushing,” Bright explained.

He pointed to the recent example of the Miami-Dade County Public Defender’s Office, where four years ago, less than 100 lawyers represented 40,000 noncapital felony cases.

“A big case load goes with the territory,” said Bright. However, he explained that there is a limit to the number of cases a public defender can effectively handle.

Bright urged the students considering work as public defenders to remember their responsibility to represent all clients equally. He reminded the law students that a commitment to professionalism and ethics should balance public service work.

Students at Stetson Law are required to complete pro bono work as a requirement of graduation. Stetson’s public defender clinic was one of the first of its kind in the nation.