WASHINGTON, D.C. — It is not the happiest of birthdays for the landmark Supreme Court decision that, a half-century ago, guaranteed a lawyer for criminal defendants who are too poor to afford one.
A unanimous high court issued its decision in Gideon v. Wainwright on March 18, 1963, declaring that states have an obligation to provide defendants with “the guiding hand of counsel” to ensure a fair trial for the accused.
But in many states today, taxpayer-funded public defenders face crushing caseloads, the quality of legal representation varies from county to county and people stand before judges having seen a lawyer only briefly.
“There is no denying that much, much needs to be done,” Attorney General Eric Holder said Friday at a Justice Department event to commemorate the anniversary.
Clarence Earl Gideon had been in and out of jail in his nearly 51 years when he was arrested on suspicion of stealing wine and some money from vending machines at a Panama City, Fla., pool hall in 1961. Gideon asked the judge for a lawyer before his trial, but was turned down. At the time, Florida only provided lawyers for indigent defendants in capital cases.
A jury convicted Gideon, and the state Supreme Court upheld the verdict on appeal. Then, from his Florida prison cell, Gideon scratched out his Supreme Court appeal on prison stationery. It arrived at the court early in 1962 when the justices were looking for a good case to take on the issue of indigent defense. The court appointed Washington lawyer Abe Fortas, a future justice, to represent him.
Just two months after hearing arguments, Justice Hugo Black wrote for the court that “in our adversary system of criminal justice, any person hauled 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.”
Five months later, Gideon got a lawyer and a new trial, and the attorney poked holes in the prosecution’s case. A jury quickly returned its verdict: not guilty.
So that was the promise of Gideon – that a competent lawyer for the defense would stand on an equal footing with prosecutors, and that justice would prevail, at least in theory.