The Justice Department recently signaled that it may be taking on a greater role in assuring the quality of indigent defense in state criminal systems. It filed a brief last month in a lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington against two towns for failing to provide adequate legal assistance for poor defendants.
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Fifty years after the Supreme Court ruled that the Constitution guarantees every criminal defendant a lawyer, the right to effective counsel remains an empty promise in too many parts of the country. The Justice Department’s filing in the Washington lawsuit is an encouraging sign that the federal government is beginning to back up that promise with the weight of its authority.