Gideon v. Wainwright, 50 years later

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On March 18, 2013, we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the United States Supreme Court’s watershed ruling for the right to counsel: Gideon v. Wainwright.  There, the U.S. Supreme Court declared it an “obvious truth” that anyone accused of a crime and who cannot afford the cost of a lawyer “cannot be assured a fair trial unless counsel is provided for him.”  Under our Constitution, therefore, government has a “fundamental and essential” obligation — a promise — to provide meaningful access to zealous and effective representation in criminal matters for anyone who can’t afford the cost on his own. Unfortunately, here we are, now fifty years later, and this promise is still not fulfilled.

A sampling of the past week’s news stories, editorials, and opinion pages (see side bar) would lead one to believe this 50th Anniversary is cause for no celebration at all. That those who value the Constitution and the rights of all people — rich or poor — should mourn the state of the right to counsel.

But we at the Sixth Amendment Center choose to remain optimistic.  Time and again, the U.S. Supreme Court has set precedent in a landmark case and then it has taken time, courage and fortitude of countless advocates to make the promise of that decision meet the reality of day-to-day existence.  Did racial discrimination in education end or begin with Brown vs. the Board of Education?  Though Brown too is not fully implemented today, there is little doubt that we are much closer to meeting its promise than we were sixty years ago.  As Martin Luther King, Jr. once stated, “[t]he arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

The march toward Gideon’s promise is indeed long, and there is much room for improvement, but each year, more and more states and counties bend toward justice by undertaking efforts to reform the right to counsel.  During the 40th anniversary of Gideon, would we have dared to think that ten years later we would be talking about public defender offices being created in Houston, Texas and Birmingham, Alabama?  Or, that the Louisiana legislature would choose to eliminate the local judiciary from the oversight of public defense services in favor of an independent statewide commission?  In 2003, Maryland was enmeshed in one of the country’s worst caseload crises, and now they have resources to provide counsel at arraignments and bail review hearings.

This year, the Governor of Montana proposed a biennium budget for the state public defender of $53.6 million (annual budget of $26.8 million).  A decade ago, Montana had a Balkanized, county-based system that spent, on average, $11 million annually.  North Dakota, Maine and South Carolina all moved to statewide systems within the past ten years.  The State Supreme Court in Washington has adopted caseload standards, while the Supreme Court in Nevada set performance standards and removed undue judicial interference in that state. And, statewide agencies in New York and Texas are awarding significant grants to improve right to counsel services in those states.  Perhaps, most importantly, could we have seen a day when the U.S. Department of Justice would begin to enforce the right to counsel through its Civil Rights Division?

And there’s more.  Since Gideon’s 40th anniversary the state of New Mexico Public Defender has gone through four leadership changes as undue political influence has led Governors of both political parties to appoint their own chief defenders.  On Friday March 15, 2013, the New Mexico Senate passed a statewide public defender commission bill that had already been voted successfully through the House.  This legislative victory came as a result of the New Mexico electorate passing a constitutional amendment requiring the creation of an independent public defender commission.  March 15, 2013, also saw the proposed initial reforms in Idaho favorably voted out of the Senate Judiciary Committee after already having been passed by wide margins in the House.  And, substantial reform in one of the most notorious indigent defense states – Michigan – is seriously in play this session.

Are any of the states mentioned above fully realizing Gideon’s promise? The answer is “of course not.” But at least in each state there is now a structure – a “system” – that can keep the fight for equal justice going at the local level. Our challenge now is to ensure that Gideon doesn’t take another 50 years to be fully realized.  The Sixth Amendment Center, therefore, chooses to celebrate today’s historic anniversary even as we pledge to work tirelessly on behalf of those less fortunate in the reform efforts to come.

David Carroll, Executive Director
Sixth Amendment Center


Gideon’s 50th in the news

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Mesquite Local News, (Opinion) Justice for all includes the poor

Monday, April 1, 2013

South Bend Tribune, (Editorial) Public defender system needs an overhaul

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

KNPR Nevada Public Radio, Nevada Rurals Lacking Defense Lawyers
Marietta Times, Landmark court ruling handed down 50 years ago; so how is the system working?
Youngstown Vindicator, The Sixth Amendment’s promise of a fair trial fades

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

St. Louis Post-Dispatch, (Editorial) Criminal code revision should relieve stress on public defenders

Monday, March 25, 2013

Virgin Islands Daily News, V.I. indigent defense system behind times
Campus Progress, The Myth of the Public Defender

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Greenbay Press Gazette, (Opinion) In defense of Gideon, public defenders
Cleveland Plain-Dealer, (Opinion) 50 years later after Gideon, inconsistencies diminish the right to counsel

Friday, March 22, 2013

Shreveport Times, (Opinion) More funding needed for public defense
ACLU of Montana, Legislators speaking up for public defense

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Helen Air, (Opinion) Gideon at 50: A public defense promise still unfulfilled
American Constitution Society, The Ongoing Battle to Bolster Indigent Defense 50 Years after Gideon

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Boise Weekly, And Justice For All?
Northern Virginia Daily, Public defender reflects on 50th anniversary of landmark case

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

NPR, After 50 Years, A State Of Crisis For The Right To Counsel
Anderson Independent-Mail, Celebrating 50 years of the right to counsel

Monday, March 18, 2013

Los Angeles Review of Books, Pleading Out: America’s Broken Public Defense System
CNN, 'Gideon' at 50 and the right to counsel: Their words
National Law Journal, (Opinion) Not much to celebrate
Los Angeles Times, (Opinion) Violating the right to a lawyer
Everett Herald, (Opinion) 50 years later, fulfilling right to counsel
Associate Press (via Huffington Post), Gideon v. Wainright 50th Anniversary: Serious Problems Persist In Indigent Legal Defense
Worthington Daily Globe, (Opinion) Public defenders are essential
article3, Gideon v. Wainwright Turns 50: A History of Your Right to Counsel
ACLU Blog of Rights, Gideon Real Stories Project: Massive Caseloads in Memphis, Tennessee
MyWabashValley, 50 Years Later: Attorney Reflects on Supreme Court's Public Defender Decision
NAACP Legal Defense Fund, LDF Marks 50th Anniversary of Indigent Defense Counsel
ColorLines, On ‘Gideon’s’ 50th, a Crisis in Public Defense Deepens Racial Inequality

Sunday, March 17, 2013

New York Times, (Opinion) Gideon's Muted Trumpet
Minneapolis Star Tribune, (Opinion) Minnesota public defender: Access to counsel is at risk
Detroit Free-Press, (Editorial) Kilpatrick's peers deserve good lawyers, too
Idaho Press-Tribune, (Editorial) Time to examine public defense
Billings Gazette, (Opinion) 50 years after Gideon, public defense promise unfulfilled
Lexington Herald-Leader, (Opinion) At liberty's core: right to counsel
Duluth News-Tribune, (Opinion) Public defender's view: Public defenders protect your rights
West Chester Daily Local News, Public defenders to gather for an anniversary
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Landmark decision on right to counsel marks 50th anniversary
Leonard Pitts, Jr., Syndicated Columnist, Right to counsel? It's stacked against the poor
Battle Creek Enquirer, (Opinion) Right to an attorney turns 50
Salt Lake Tribune, Utah lawyers: Historic ruling's legacy at risk
Louisville Courier-Journal, (Opinion) The right to a lawyer
Huffington Post, Gideon v. Wainwright Anniversary Highlights Lingering Problems
AP/Concord Monitor, Serious problems persist in indigent legal defense

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Monterey Herald, Gideon's promise: 50 years after landmark case, public defenders worry about their future
New Haven Register, Public defenders crucial to justice for past 50 years in U.S.

Friday, March 15, 2013

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, Prepared remarks on U.S. DOJ 50th anniversary celebration of Gideon v. Wainwright
Washington Post, (Opinion) Indigent clients suffer as public defenders struggle to keep up with caseloads
NPR, 50 Years After Key Case, Problems Defending the Poor Persist
Houston Chronicle, (Opinion) Budget cuts threatening Sixth Amendment right
The Atlantic, Eric Holder: A 'State of Crisis' for the Right to Counsel
ACLU Blog of Rights, "You Have the Right to an Attorney..." We All Know the Hollywood Version, But What's the Real Story?
Owensboro Messenger-Inquirer, Experts: Public defender system needs upgrade

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Equal Justice Initiative, 50th Anniversary of Gideon Decision Exposes Continuing Problems in Indigent Defense

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, (Opinion) Commemorating the right to counsel
The Atlantic, How Americans Lost the Right to Counsel, 50 Years After 'Gideon'
Huffington Post, Is the Right to Counsel for Criminal Defendants a Myth?

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

USA Today, You have the right to counsel. Or do you?

Sunday, March 10, 2013

The New York Times, (Editorial) The Right to Counsel: Badly Battered at 50
ABA Journal, Indigent Defense Advocate: Fundamental Rights in Criminal Cases Not Protected, Despite Gideon Ruling

February 1, 2013

Tennessee Bar Association, 50 Years After 'Gideon': Indigent Defense System Needs Adequate Funding