A Teachable Moment On the Wisdom of Cutting Government

Digby

I have my doubts that this will result in a change of heart among conservatives about the wisdom of cutting necessary government services, but it’s at least possible.

This is from Ari Melber on the judicial system’s reaction to sequestration cuts hitting home:

“A significant problem arises when budget cuts impact our responsibilities under the Constitution,” he said. “This happens when we cannot afford to fulfill the Sixth Amendment right to representation for indigents charged with crimes,” Traxler explained.

Other federal judges are weighing in as well–an unusual occurrence for a spending debate freighted with political ideology.

This week, Michael Davis, the chief federal judge in Minnesota, told The Pioneer Press that the cuts are hampering “the administration of justice.”

Even America’s top judge was moved to confront sequester policy. While emphasizing that he was speaking on behalf of the courts, not the wisdom of a given policy, Chief Justice John Roberts recently protested that the sequester’s “sustained cuts” have a “direct” and harmful impact on judicial services, leading to furloughs and layoffs.

“The idea that we have to be swept along because it is good public policy to cut everybody–I am not commenting on that policy at all–but the notion that we should just be swept along with [sequester cuts] I think is really unfounded,” Roberts said at a judicial conference in May.

“The cuts hit us particularly hard because we are made up of people. That is what the judicial branch is,” Roberts emphasized. The Chief Justice was essentially challenging the entire premise of the sequester–that government employees should face the same kind of uniform cuts as government spending on weapons or infrastructure.

“It is not like we are the Pentagon,” Roberts said, “where you can slow up a particular procurement program.”

Yes, well that applies to many parts of the government doesn’t it? Parts that Roberts may not value but other people do. In fact, most conservatives would say that procurement cuts impact people as well and “cost jobs” (as only military and defense contracting jobs are ever considered worthy government employment.) But the idea that “people” should come before weapons is one in which I can certainly find bipartisan comity with the Chief Justice.

By the way, conservatives have been very interested in the issue of indigent defense for quite some time. They want to experiment with it by changing to a system of, you guessed it, vouchers. This is from a Cato Institute paper touted in the American Conservative:

Vouchers would empower indigent clients to select the most capable and independent counsel. To help clients make informed decisions, local bar associations could provide information on how prior clients have rated various attorneys and monitor their caseloads to identify counsel whose high volume of cases suggests they may simply be entering pleas rather than providing a vigorous defense. In Texas, the state Task Force on Indigent Defense is already beginning to explore these ideas.

Nearly forty years ago, Milton Friedman argued that although government may have a role in ensuring access to food and education, it does not necessarily follow that government is well-suited to managing grocery stores and schools. Food stamps for use in privately-managed groceries and vouchers for private schools probably work better. There is no reason the same logic would not apply to indigent defense services.

I would certainly agree that our system for indigent defense in inadequate. But why anyone thinks this would make it better is beyond me. In fact,  I’m going to guess they don’t actually believe that handing a voucher and rating card to some indigent prisoner would help solve the problem of bad legal representation. (That would be as absurd as saying senior citizens should be shopping around for cheaper tuna and heart bypass procedures so “the market” can work more efficiently…) Which makes you wonder what they’re really after. Well, not really. I think we know what they’re really after, don’t we?

I’m going to guess that Justice John Roberts is more concerned about judges being over-scheduled and understaffed than about indigent defendants. But them I’m a cynic.

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