Thoughts on the 50th anniversary of the Criminal Justice Act

I was recently given the honor of being appointed to serve a second three-year term as CJA Panel Representative from the Middle District of Alabama. The CJA Panel is the group of private practice lawyers who are accepted by the Federal District Court to receive appointments to represent clients in that court. As CJA Panel Representative, my first task of the year was to attend the national conference in Alexandria, Virginia.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Criminal Justice Act, the landmark legislation that set up the system of appointed counsel in place today, allowing even those among us who are unable to afford legal representation will receive the competent, skilled assistance of a lawyer.

After attending the conference, I have a couple of thoughts that I would like to share.

First of all, I was extremely impressed with the quality and commitment of my fellow panel representatives. It is truly inspiring to be around and interact with so many people who are committed to doing justice for all in our society. Each year I return from this conference energized and with a renewed confidence in our system as a whole.

I am also struck by the stark realities facing those who stand accused of committing criminal offenses in our country. Many accused individuals face overwhelming odds, against a bureaucracy that has seemingly bottomless resources and endless time to build a case against them. It is up to lawyers like those on the CJA panel, both locally in the Middle District, as well as nationwide, to use what resources are available to us to help ensure that our clients get the best representation possible. I believe that the Criminal Justice Act helps to level the playing field in that regard. I am extremely proud to be associated with such an important group of people.

Finally, I can’t help but comment on how lucky we in the Middle District of Alabama are to have the support of a fantastic group of Federal Defenders, the full-time lawyers who spend their entire practice representing the indigent in Federal Court, both at the trial and appellate levels. Some districts, I learned, have contentious relationships with the full-time defenders; that has never been the case in our district.

I am proud that my colleagues and members of the bench in the Middle District have entrusted me with this important responsibility, and I look forward to another three years of working together to move the entire system forward, ensuring that the most vulnerable and least protected in our society receive the benefits of counsel when navigating a system that all too often seems insurmountable.