ABA sections launch Task Force for Public Defense Independence

By American Bar Association

The American Bar Association Criminal Justice Section and Standing Committee on Legal Aid and Indigent Defense (SCLAID), in partnership with the National Association for Public Defense, recently announced the creation of the Task Force for Public Defense Independence.

The mission of the task force is to protect and strengthen independence and enhance the public’s understanding of the critical role public defense independence plays in ensuring a fair and just criminal legal system.

Co-chaired by Keisha Hudson, chief defender of the Defender Association of Philadelphia, and Malia Brink, senior policy attorney at the Deason Criminal Justice Reform Center at the Southern Methodist University Dedman School of Law, the task force is comprised of a diverse group of defenders, legal scholars and others with expertise in the criminal legal system from across the country.

The task force will be assisted by an advisory board of prominent scholars and practitioners with experience addressing political or judicial encroachments on the defense function.

“The ABA Criminal Justice Section convenes this task force to support and advance public defense independence,” said Tina Luongo, chair of the ABA Criminal Justice Section and chief attorney of the Criminal Defense Practice at the Legal Aid Society in New York City.

“In 2002, the ABA passed the ‘10 Principles of a Public Defense Delivery System’ to simplify the critical components of effective public defense. Independence was Principle 1,” said SCLAID Chair Bryant Y. Yang. “In 2023, the ABA revised those principles, and independence remained Principle 1 because independence is vital to the public defense function.”

“Public defenders must have the independence to make decisions solely in the best interests of their clients,” said Keisha Hudson, co-chair of the task force. “The structure of the system must ensure that public defenders are not susceptible to pressure from either the executive or the judicial branches.”

“Public defenders must be able to challenge the government without fear of reprisal or reproach,” said Lori James-Townes, executive director of the National Association for Public Defense. “This task force will outline the critical steps necessary to ensure this freedom.”

“Public defense independence is not only about governance and selecting leaders based on qualifications, not connections, it is about the autonomy to pursue the resources needed to appropriately serve clients,” added task force co-chair Malia Brink.

For additional information on the task force, visit www.americanbar.org/groups/criminal_justice/committees/taskforces/public-defense.