A Legal Scholar Offers an Opinion
These remarks regarding the adversary system of justice were made by Christopher Stone, director of the Vera Institute of Justice, www.vera.org, following a screening of Presumed Guilty in New York on January 7, 2002.
"The vitality of the adversary system, with its robust defense of indigent defendants, is powerfully displayed in this film. It is an imperfect system but one with strength and moral purpose. Yet the future of the adversary system in general, and the robust defense of the indigent in particular, are under threat today across the United States.
"The threat is obvious in some of the arguments made recently by proponents of the use of military tribunals to try alleged terrorists. These tribunals -- with their diminished rights to trial by jury, independent investigation and aggressive defense -- are promoted as necessary to obtain convictions, as if the justice that results from the full adversary system is inherently flawed. In really important cases, the argument sometimes goes, we cannot afford to provide a robust defense to the accused lest the defense lawyers reveal the holes, or biased assumptions, in the prosecution's case.
"But the threat to the adversary system and to robust defense did not arrive with the war on terrorism. The Clinton administration was also disenchanted with truly adversarial defense. As Attorney General of the United States, Janet Reno probably did more to support public defenders than did any of her predecessors. She sponsored programs to train chief public defenders and staff attorneys, to improve public defense of juveniles, and to strengthen the design of public defense organizations, among others. Yet her vision of the best public defense was less adversarial than what we see in this film.
"I recall an exchange I had with Attorney General Reno about half-way through her time in office. I asked her about the role she hoped public defenders could play in the justice system. As always, she said she was ready to support the important work that public defenders do, but she added that public defenders, in turn, must be more constructive and less adversarial than they often are. She wanted public defenders to behave more like those she had known in Miami's drug court, where public defenders worked in partnership with prosecutors to get defendants sentenced to drug treatment.
"I recall this exchange because, whatever one thinks of drug courts, they clearly represent a less adversarial form of justice than what we see in Presumed Guilty. The "problem-solving courts," as they are known, beloved of Democratic and Republican administrations, suggest a role for defense lawyers more appropriate in Continental, inquisitorial systems of justice than in the adversarial system unique to the United States. It is a role that any administration will likely continue to press on public defenders.
"My point is not that today's adversarial system must be preserved just as it is. Its flaws are evident in Presumed Guilty when, for example, one of the defenders describes liking trials because they allow her to get to know at least a few of her clients, something impossible to do with most of the people on her caseload of a hundred. High caseloads, inadequate training, distance from clients and political interference are only a few of the problems that prevent many from receiving the kind of defense that everyone deserves.
"My point is that, as we work to improve public defense in the United States, we need to make it more robust, not less. As we fight the political tide, we must hold tight to the principles, to the passion, to the humanity and to the moral vision of the defenders we meet in this film."