STEVE INSKEEP, host:
Health care has taken up so much attention that it's easy to overlook other parts of the administration's agenda. The president's attorney general, Eric Holder, wants to make it easier for poor people to get legal help. One of the top constitutional lawyers in the country will spearhead the project. NPR's Ari Shapiro has this preview.
ARI SHAPIRO: The constitution guarantees that every criminal defendant will have access to a competent lawyer. It's a promise that many states fail to keep. Many states don't have the money or the systems in place to provide people with good lawyers, or any lawyers. And since more than 80 percent of defendants can't pay for their own lawyers, that means there's a deep-seated problem in the criminal justice system.
Attorney General ERIC HOLDER (Department of Justice): Some might wonder what the United States attorney general is doing at a conference largely about the defense that poor people receive in state and in local courts.
SHAPIRO: Attorney General Eric Holder spoke with hundreds of indigent defense experts in Washington, D.C. recently. The Justice Department had paid to bring them to town for the first government-sponsored indigent defense conference in a decade.
Mr. HOLDER: Although they may stand on different sides of an argument, different sides of a courtroom, the prosecution and the defense can and must share the same objective: not victory, but justice.
SHAPIRO: Some indigent defense experts were afraid the conference would be the end of this, a lot of happy talk about helping poor people. But now the attorney general is going a step farther with a new Access to Justice initiative. Although there has been no official announcement, a justice spokesperson confirmed the plans.
Professor Lawrence Tribe will lead the project. His title will be senior counselor for Access to Justice. Tribe is widely considered to be one of the top constitutional law experts in the country. He'll coordinate with judges and lawyers across the country, and his goal will be to find ways to help people who can't afford a lawyer. That means improving indigent defense and also looking to programs like drug courts and mental health courts.
Tribe is taking a leave from Harvard Law School for this job. He declined to comment for this story, but people in the indigent defense community are delighted. Joanne Wallace is president of the National Legal Aid and Defender Association.
Ms. JOANNE WALLACE (President, National Legal Aid and Defender Association): It demonstrates that they recognize how important public defense is for a fair justice system, so we're excited that they're moving forward.
SHAPIRO: The project will use a reallocation of money that's already in the Justice Department's budget, according to a Justice official. It is easy to caricature this as a liberal program to help criminals get off the hook. But several top conservative lawyers reached yesterday were very enthusiastic about the project.
Mr. KEN STARR (Dean, Pepperdine Law School): It's very appropriate and fitting, and it's consistent with the finest traditions of the Department of Justice.
SHAPIRO: Ken Starr is Dean of Pepperdine Law School.
Mr. STARR: This is not the Department of Public Prosecutions, but it is much more broadly a department that, at its best, is seeking justice, whether in the civil arena or in the criminal justice system.
SHAPIRO: Starr called Professor Tribe a brilliant choice to lead the initiative.
Charles Cooper agrees. He served in the Justice Department under President Reagan, and has tried cases with and against Tribe.
Mr. CHARLES COOPER (Former Justice Department Official): I have no doubt that Professor Tribe will be extremely effective both as a teacher and as an advocate and as a scholar of the law in this new calling.
SHAPIRO: Tribe starts his new job Monday.
Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Washington.
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