The COURT: I am sorry, but I cannot appoint Counsel to represent you in this case. Under the laws of the State of Florida, the only time the Court can appoint Counsel to represent a Defendant is when that person is charged with a capital offense. I am sorry, but I will have to deny your request to appoint Counsel to defend you in this case.The “DEFENDANT” in that passage was Clarence Gideon. At the time he made that request in 1962, he was actually wrong. The Supreme Court had held that, unless there was some particular reason that a defendant couldn’t represent himself (mental illness, illiteracy, etc.) he had no right to counsel. Gideon went to trial and was convicted. Then he wrote petition, in pencil, to the Supreme Court. With an assist from future Justice Abe Fortas, Gideon would fundamentally change the American legal system.
The DEFENDANT: The United States Supreme Court says I am entitled to be represented by Counsel.
Fifty years ago today, the Supreme Court announced its decision in Gideon’s case. Unanimously, the Court rejected its old precedent and held that every person charged with a crime (that carries a sentence of jail time) has a right to an attorney, appointed at state expense if they can’t afford one. Justice Black, writing for the Court, wound up the opinion in lofty, aspirational language:
reason and reflection require us to recognize that in our adversary system of criminal justice, any person haled into court, who is too poor to hire a lawyer, cannot be assured a fair trial unless counsel is provided for him. This seems to us to be an obvious truth. Governments, both state and federal, quite properly spend vast sums of money to establish machinery to try defendants accused of crime. Lawyers to prosecute are everywhere deemed essential to protect the public's interest in an orderly society. Similarly, there are few defendants charged with crime, few indeed, who fail to hire the best lawyers they can get to prepare and present their defenses. That government hires lawyers to prosecute and defendants who have the money hire lawyers to defend are the strongest indications of the wide—spread belief that lawyers in criminal courts are necessities, not luxuries.To be fair, the writing was on the wall when it came to appointing counsel for indigent defendants. Florida didn’t send its top appellate lawyer to argue the case, instead entrusting it to an assistant attorney general who had never argued before the Court before. And his attempts to bolster his case didn’t go well:
An effort by Jacob to get other states to file an amicus brief extolling the dangers to federalism of requiring counsel for indigent defendants drew only two supporters (Alabama and North Carolina). Meanwhile, the letter from Jacob prompted a young, up-and-coming politician, Minnesota Attorney General Walter F. Mondale, to organize an amicus from states urging that Betts be overruled. Twenty-three states signed on.It all paid off for Gideon in the end. At a retrial where he was represented by counsel (although not by volunteers from the ACLU whom he turned down), Gideon was acquitted. He couldn’t get back the time he lost in prison, of course, but at least he lived the rest of his life as free man.
I owe a debt to Gideon (and Fortas), since without his case I doubt the public defender system of which I’ve been a part for the past 13 years wouldn’t exist. Although that case didn’t technically deal with the right to counsel on appeal, the entire apparatus in which I work owes its beginning to Gideon’s pencil-written petition.
Alas, 50 years out from the Court’s decision, we as a society still struggle to provide adequate representation to indigent criminal defendants. In fact, that failure has become a common feature in reports about the court system :
A 2004 report by the ABA, Gideon’s Broken Promise: America’s Continuing Quest for Equal Justice (PDF), laid out the top concerns. The chief one is that indigent defense services are not adequately funded, leading to an inability to attract and compensate good lawyers, as well as to pay for experts and investigators. Meanwhile, defenders of the indigent are often inexperienced, fail to maintain proper contact with their clients, or are not competent to provide services that meet ethical standards. And judges sometimes fail to honor the independence of defense counsel and routinely accept representation of indigent defendants that is patently inadequate.Ten years on, things are in no better shape, particular in state courts. One repeated recommendation of reports on indigent defense is that statewide systems are best as delivery quality representation. Unfortunately, only 24 states have statewide public defender systems. The federal system is both broader and more integrated (IIRC, only one federal district is without a defender office of some kind) and, as a result, generally performs better.
There were more specifics, of course, but the report’s bottom line was that ‘40 years after Gideon v. Wainwright, indigent defense in the United States remains in a state of crisis, resulting in a system that lacks fundamental fairness and places poor persons at constant risk of wrongful conviction.
As an example of what it can be like at the state level, check out the situation in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, detailed recently in USA Today:
If he came back today, Clarence Gideon might rue the quality of legal representation he'd receive. He might not get any at all.That situation may be exceptionally bad, but it’s a good example of problems faced across the country.
Such was the fate last year of some indigent criminal defendants who walked in the public defender's door here and past Gideon's gaze. They were told that, because of a shortage of staff lawyers, the office was turning down all but the most serious new cases. They were given a letter to show the judge.
Al Flora, Luzerne County chief public defender, says that ethically and legally he had no choice: His overburdened lawyers couldn't take on new clients and do justice to those they already had. He sued county officials — his bosses — to let him hire more lawyers and to stop them from retaliating against him.
We send more people to prison than any other country on the planet. Our greatest grown industry is building prisons. Legislators, at the state and national level, respond to every problem that arises with more laws that define more crimes and require more severe punishments. Yet, for all that, we don’t make sure that the people charged with those crimes get adequate representation. It’s a failure of fundamental fairness.
In Gideon, the Court wrote that:
[t]he right of one charged with crime to counsel may not be deemed fundamental and essential to fair trials in some countries, but it is in ours. From the very beginning, our state and national constitutions and laws have laid great emphasis on procedural and substantive safeguards designed to assure fair trials before impartial tribunals in which every defendant stands equal before the law. This noble ideal cannot be realized if the poor man charged with crime has to face his accusers without a lawyer to assist him.Sadly, that’s as true today as it was 50 years ago.