Gideon’s Promise

By Margaret M. Walker, Dutchess County Public Defender

In honor of “Gideon day,” celebrating the United States Supreme Court decision, Gideon v. Wainwright, dated March 18, 1963…

Etched above the entrance to the United States Supreme Court is the phrase, “Equal Justice Under Law.” These words are both an ideal and a promise. An ideal that the quality of justice should never be based on impermissible factors such as race, religion, national origin, gender, sexual orientation or the amount of money you have. A promise of our society’s abiding commitment to provide equal justice for all.

The Sixth Amendment of the United States Constitution, ratified in 1791, gave citizens certain rights in criminal trials, including the right to counsel. Some may not realize that prior to 1963, that right only applied in the federal courts, not in state criminal trials. Local defendants who could afford to pay a lawyer could retain one, of course, but if someone did not have enough money, they could be tried and convicted without a lawyer in the state courts.

It was not until 1963 that the United States Supreme Court decided in the landmark case of Gideon v. Wainwright that the Sixth Amendment right to counsel applies in every court in the land. They did this by determining that the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution, which provides all citizens with “equal protection under the laws,” includes the Sixth Amendment Right to Counsel. The story leading to one of the most important legal rulings ever decided by the Nation’s Highest Court is an iconic American tale.

In the summer of 1961, Clarence Earl Gideon faced a criminal trial in a state court in Florida, on charges that he broke into a poolroom and stole coins from a cigarette machine. He asserted his innocence and requested a lawyer. That request was denied because, at the time, there was no right to a court-appointed lawyer barring certain special circumstances. Gideon cross-examined the state’s witnesses himself, without knowing the complexities of the criminal procedure law. He was basically a lifelong drifter at the age of 51, with an eighth-grade education. He was found guilty and sentenced to five years in prison.

Writing from his prison cell in Florida, he sent a handwritten petition to the United States Supreme Court arguing that the Constitution does not allow poor people to be convicted and sent to prison without legal representation. The time was finally right for this argument.

On March 18, 1963, Justice Hugo Black, writing for a unanimous Court, stated: “….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 an obvious truth….” and this right “may not be deemed fundamental and essential to fair trials in some countries, but it is in ours.”

At his retrial, with a lawyer, Gideon was acquitted. Ever since, it is accepted that the right to counsel is essential. The concept is easy to accept, from an objective perspective of fairness. What remained was the question of what level of government would pay for these lawyers to represent the vast number of criminal defendants who could cannot afford to hire a lawyer.

The states proceeded to handle the creation of their public defense systems very differently. Some created a unified, statewide Public Defender office. New York State, two years after Gideon, enacted County Law Article 18-B in 1965, which became a dysfunctional guarantee of the right to counsel insofar as that law mandated New York’s 62 counties to fund their own systems of public defense. Compensation rates for county-provided lawyers were variable and often not enough to provide truly meaningful representation. To that point, a 2001 expose in the New York Times called New York’s public defense system one of “Drive-by Legal Defense.” (April 12, 2001 N.Y. Times headline).

New York State, having left it to the counties to choose a system of their own, now has a hodgepodge of public defense systems, from county public defender offices, to contracts with Legal Aid Societies, to private attorney panels. Today, 61 years after Gideon, implementation of the Sixth Amendment right to counsel remains uneven across the state and nation, and people who cannot afford counsel are regularly denied their basic right to a qualified attorney, resulting in unjust verdicts.

It is a challenging task, indeed, to bring to life the promise of Gideon v. Wainwright – the dream in which every person charged with a crime will be capably defended, regardless of economic circumstance. Public trust in the legal system is still shaken by tales of wrongful convictions and the exoneration of the innocent after serving years in prison. All too often, the quality of justice people receive is determined by how much money they have.

The Supreme Court later expanded the right to assistance of counsel for children in juvenile delinquency proceedings and to any accused person where there is potential for the loss of liberty. In 2010, New York State created the Office of Indigent Legal Services to assist county governments and indigent legal service providers to improve the quality of legal representation. The funds provided by that Office were deeply needed and made all the difference.

We are most fortunate in Dutchess County to have a public defender office with experienced and dedicated full-time criminal and family defense lawyers, as well as investigators, social workers, and a legal support staff which deliver on Gideon’s promise every day.

Gideon stands as a milestone in American constitutional law. It affirms the principle of equal justice under the law, the most fundamental aspiration of our legal system. It represents the kind of legal system we would like to have and the kind of society we aspire to be.

As we cherish the ideal, we must continue to deliver on the promise.