Rationing Criminal Defense Entitlements: An Argument from Institutional Design

35 Pages Posted: 13 Oct 2003

See all articles by Darryl K. Brown

Darryl K. Brown

University of Virginia School of Law


This essay takes as its premise that the widespread and long-term underfunding of indigent criminal defense is, for practical purposes, a permanent fixture of the political and constitutional landscape. From this assumption, it makes two points, one theoretical, the other practical. The theoretical point is that consistent underfunding of constitutional entitlements can be a legitimate legislative response to judicial specification of constitutional rights. Courts define constitutional rights, but many of those entitlements are unfunded mandates to legislatures. Entitlements such as the right to defense counsel, require money to become reality. Legislatures have responded by underfunding those rights, yet have not specified how limited funds should be allocated - that is, how rights should be rationed. The Supreme Court, in fact, has to a large degree barred legislatures from doing so through constitutional criminal procedure rules. This legislative-judicial dynamic implicitly delegates, largely to defense attorneys but also to trial judges, the task of rationing rights that cannot be implemented as fully as formal judicial pronouncement implies. This ongoing interaction between courts, legislatures and the defense bar (aided by trial judges) looks like a species of Dorf and Sabel's "democratic experimentalism," a model that describes a broad array of government actions that define constitutional and sub-constitutional law. Here the twist is that private actors - defense attorneys - have a large hand in constructing the real, working content of constitutional entitlements.

Given this weighty task, the essay sketches a set of practical guidelines by which defense counsel and other trial-level actors can most sensibly implement the job of rationing rights that has been delegated to them. This essay proposes a set of default rules grounded on two core principles: priority to factual innocence over other instrumental goals of criminal procedure, and a harm-reduction principle that gives preference to suspects facing greater potential punishments. A set of default rules, drawn largely from the study of wrongful convictions, provides practical guidance for implementing these principles. This practice substantively revises the real meaning of constitutional entitlements and leaves some defendants indisputably with less than judicial pronouncements of constitutional law imply. But when rights are underfunded, that outcome is inevitable, as longstanding practice demonstrates. Explicitly confronting funding limits and allocating rights in light of them yields a more coherent, defensible allocation of entitlements.

Suggested Citation

Brown, Darryl K., Rationing Criminal Defense Entitlements: An Argument from Institutional Design. Columbia Law Review, Vol. 104, p. 801, 2004, Washington & Lee Legal Studies Paper No. 04-10, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=444000 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.444000

Darryl K. Brown (Contact Author)

University of Virginia School of Law ( email )

580 Massie Road
Charlottesville, VA 22903
United States

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