The Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees defendants the right to professional legal counsel regardless of ability to pay for it. Shockingly, there have been systemic Sixth Amendment violations in municipal courts throughout the United States for some time. In some cases, criminal defendants are not informed of their right to an attorney free of charge. In other cases, defendants are wrongfully informed that they either have to pay for an attorney or represent themselves.
The Problem with Courts of Limited Jurisdiction
Courts that handle misdemeanors function differently than courts that handle felony offenses. Usually, these misdemeanor courts are referred to as “courts of limited jurisdiction.” Nationally, there are approximately 16,000 of these courts, and data as of 2009 suggests that these types of courts handle 70 million cases annually.
Courts that handle felony cases have strict reporting requirements, and generally fall under more scrutiny than courts of limited jurisdiction. Data on misdemeanor courts, on the other hand, can be difficult to come by. This can make it difficult to track and correct Sixth Amendment violations, which disproportionally affect poor defendants who cannot pay for legal representation.
Another problem with courts of limited jurisdiction is that, in many states, judges are not required to have a law degree or to have passed the bar exam. In Ohio, Municipal court judges must be attorneys who have practiced law for at least six years. Ohio also has Mayor’s Courts, which the actual mayor of a municipal corporation can preside over. Mayors in Ohio are not required to be lawyers, but they can only preside over cases involving local ordinance violations and state traffic law violations, such as DUIs.
Pleading Guilty As a Quick Fix
Many poor defendants end up just pleading guilty in order to get out of jail. Even if a criminal defendant hasn’t been convicted, if they cannot afford bail, they will have to remain in prison until they either plead guilty or their trial has concluded. If more defendants were aware of their Sixth Amendment right to attorney representation, maybe we wouldn’t have such a high incarceration rate. Reforming courts of limited jurisdiction is just one link in a larger chain of criminal justice reform.