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On The Front Lines

Rutherford Institute Challenges Government Efforts to Sidestep Rule of Law, Undermine Sixth Amendment Assurance of Right to Legal Counsel

NEW YORK, N.Y. — Pushing back against efforts to sidestep the rule of law and disregard fundamental protections for the rights of the accused, The Rutherford Institute has asked a federal appeals court to prohibit government officials from undermining the Sixth Amendment’s assurance of the right to legal counsel.

In a joint amicus brief filed in Federal Defenders of N.Y. v. Federal Bureau of Prisons before the Second Circuit Court of Appeals, The Rutherford Institute, the ACLU and the Constitutional Accountability Center have come to the defense of public defenders prevented from meeting with jailed clients awaiting trial in New York City.

“What we are dealing with is a rogue government that persists in disregarding the law whenever, wherever and however it chooses,” said constitutional attorney John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute and author of Battlefield America: The War on the American People. “To allow any government agency or individual to sidestep the rule of law without being strongly denounced and reined in by the citizenry and their representatives will give rise to a tyrannical regime. This is how freedom dies.”

Metropolitan Detention Center (MDC) in Brooklyn, operated by the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP), is one of the main detention centers for persons awaiting trial on federal charges in the New York City area. About 1,600 persons are held at MDC. Because persons held at MDC have not been convicted, they need to meet regularly with their attorneys in order to prepare for trial, a right assured by the Sixth Amendment. Although MDC’s stated policy is to allow attorney visits between 8:00 a.m. and 8:00 p.m., it regularly cancels this access without notice and for dubious reasons such as “staffing issues.” Beginning on January 28, 2019, MDC announced wholesale cancellation of attorney visits for days and failed to provide adequate explanation for barring defense attorneys access to their clients. It was later revealed that individuals at the detention center had, during the period of no access to their lawyers, been left in the dark and without medical, commissary and other services as a result of an electrical fire and power outage at MDC.

Federal Defenders, an organization dedicated to ensuring that the accused have access to legal counsel, sought information about the conditions at MDC and demanded that lawyer access to clients be restored. MDC officials insisted conditions at the jail were fine, but when they were forced to allow a Federal Defenders attorney access to the facility under a court order, the attorney found the conditions to be deplorable: individuals were being detained in darkened cells, some had not had food for days, and the facility was painfully cold. Federal Defenders filed a lawsuit alleging that the restrictions on its attorneys’ access to clients at MDC violated the Sixth Amendment’s guarantee to assistance of counsel.  However, the district court dismissed the claim, ruling that attorneys do not have legal standing to enforce the constitutional right to counsel.

In its amicus brief supporting the appeal before the Second Circuit Court of Appeals, The Rutherford Institute and its coalition partners argue that the district court’s ruling conflicts with the historic power of federal courts to order that federal officials stop violating the Constitution and is a dangerous precedent that could prevent courts from assuring that all constitutional rights are obeyed by government officers.

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