Monday, January 12, 2009

Although he is absorbed in extraordinarily extensive and imminent problems, President Obama, I hope, will find just an hour to look at, in a sonogram, developing human beings before they are born. Then he might revoke his promise to join many congressional Democrats in supporting the Freedom of Choice Act that annuls many states’ restrictions on abortion, such as informed consent, parental involvement and state-funding laws.

If this is his first experience with what a sonogram reveals, he may, as happened to a very pro-choice law professor I know, take a little more time to see more of those unmistakable lives. The law professor was startled to realize that one of the two human beings during an abortion has no choice.

Another wish concerns a decision by National Public Radio, whose news and investigative reports I find invaluable. For one of many examples, Nina Totenberg’s deeply informed and lucid accounts of Supreme Court decisions excel more than those anywhere else in the media.

Yet NPR has chosen to end in March a program, “News Notes,” that is the very definition of public radio in that its range of information on black culture, history, politics, news from Africa, and education and health issues are unavailable on commercial radio. And it is the only black-themed program on NPR.

I listen regularly five nights a week, nearly always learning something new about a subject I thought I knew a lot about. For example, I’ve written for years about black gospel music as a basic root of jazz, but one night on “News and Notes,” I was riveted by a guest’s strikingly illuminating account of the history and continuing influence of this spirit-lifting music that created Mahalia Jackson and Charles Mingus, among many other phenomena. At the very least, NPR should tell “News and Notes” listeners why it is interring so valuable a resource (which has been on since 2005). It can’t cost that much to air these conversations that include dissents and updates.

My next hope for this year recalls Clarence Earl Gideon in his cell at Florida State Prison years ago, writing to the Supreme Court of the United States in pencil on prison stationery that he was too poor to hire a lawyer to defend him in a criminal case and had been denied one by the courts.

Gideon cited the Sixth Amendment’s guarantee of a fair trial that included “the Assistance of Counsel for his defense.” His note was delivered and the Supreme Court listened. On March 18, 1963, the high court unanimously agreed with the penniless prisoner that the right to assistance of counsel is fundamental to a fair trial.

Writing the decision, Justice Hugo Black, whose Bill of Rights writings should be mandatory in our schools if they ever have civic classes again, said: “Reason and reflection require us to recognize that in our system of criminal justice, any person hailed into court, who is too poor to hire a lawyer, cannot be assured a fair trial unless counsel is provided.” After all, he added, the government hires lawyers to prosecute cases, so “lawyers in criminal courts are necessities, not luxuries.” Then, with a lawyer in a retrial, Mr. Gideon was found not guilty. But now in 2009, a prisoner unable to afford a lawyer may be out of luck and possible freedom in many states. As the January American Bar Association Journal reports: “Across the nation, state and local justice systems are feeling the effects of the economic crisis (and are) sent reeling.”

In Georgia, for instance, “public defender services announced plans to lay off 16 attorneys, leaving 1,850 defendants without lawyers.” Kentucky: “Ten percent of the state’s public-advocate jobs were ordered cut.” Michigan: “Though state law requires counties to protect the indigent, no state funds to do so are provided.” If a contemporary Clarence Earl Gideon were locked up in Missouri, the American Bar Association quotes The New York Times report that the state’s public defender system “has not added staff members in eight years, while the annual number of cases has grown by 12,000, said J. Marty Robinson, the director of the state’s public defenders. ‘We’re on the verge of collapse,’ he said.” Surely President Obama, who taught constitutional law at the University of Chicago, and, as community organizer, is likely to have heard stores of ineffective or evanescent state-approved attorneys for the poor, should be expected now to call the nation’s attention to reeling local and state justice systems.

If we can bail out investment firms, banks and auto manufacturers, this badly broken part (among others) of American justice requires some help.

And since many young people tune into YouTube, which Mr. Obama intends to use to address the nation, I hope he takes advantage of this chance to attract the attention of students by bringing the Constitution into their lives and telling them how and why we have the First and Fourth Amendments, the separation of powers, et al. They need to know what unites them, especially after the constitutional wreckage left behind by Mr. Bush and Mr. Cheney.

And as Congress reconsiders the No Child Left Behind Act, the president could show how school reform should also bring the Constitution back into the classroom. Its history is full of exciting, tumultuous and inspiring stories -like that of Clarence Earl Gideon.

Nat Hentoff’s column for The Washington Times appears on Mondays.

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