There is some excellent news coverage and commentary on today's 50th Anniversary of the Supreme Court's ruling in Gideon v. Wainwright. I hope that everyone can take some time today to reflect on this landmark ruling and the continuing struggle to fulfill the Supreme Court's promise of providing legal counsel to those who cannot afford an attorney.
Anthony Lewis' classic reporting Gideon's Trumpet began its life as an article in the New Yorker in 1964. It was somewhat expanded and published as a book later the same year, It has been in print ever since; an extraordinary accomplishment.
"Serious problems persist in indigent legal defense," is the AP report filed by Mark Sherman. It's also available via Huffington Post.
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, if at all.
"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.
CNN posts, "'Gideon' at 50 and the right to counsel: Their words," by Bill Mears.
"Violating the right to a lawyer," is the Los Angeles Times OpEd written by Stephen B. Bright and Sia Sanneh. Bright is an attorney with the Southern Center for Human Rights in Atlanta; Sanneh, the Equal Justice Initiative in Alabama.
Guilty pleas account for about 95% of all criminal convictions. In many courts, poor people are processed through the courts without lawyers or moments after speaking for a few minutes with lawyers they just met and will never see again. This is called "meet 'em and plead 'em" or "McJustice."
Fifty years ago this week, one of the Supreme Court's most celebrated cases, Gideon vs. Wainwright, established the right of criminal defendants to have a lawyer. The cases above are stark examples of how that right is violated every day across the nation.
Andrew Cohen has written a three-part series of columns at the Atlantic.
- So You Want to Learn More About the Gideon Case?
- How Americans Lost the Right to Counsel, 50 Years After 'Gideon'
- Eric Holder: A 'State of Crisis' for the Right to Counsel
Miami Herald Syndicated columnist Leonard Pitts writes, "Right to counsel? It’s stacked against the poor."
“Make me wanna holler, way they do my life.” — Marvin Gaye, “Inner City Blues”
Karen Houppert has written a book of nightmares.
Houppert, a veteran reporter for, among others, The Washington Post and The New York Times, is the author of Chasing Gideon: the Elusive Quest for Poor People’s Justice, which comes out this week coincident with the anniversary of a legal milestone. It was 50 years ago Monday that the case of Gideon v. Wainwright was decided.
Clarence Earl Gideon, 51, was arrested in Panama City, Fla., in 1961 for burglary. When his case came to trial, Gideon, who was indigent, asked the court to provide him an attorney. The court refused and Gideon, a four time loser and eighth grade dropout, had to represent himself. He was found guilty and given five years.
But though he was no scholar, Gideon knew something was wrong with this picture. He wrote a letter — in pencil and with a dropout’s creative spelling and grammar — to the Supreme Court, which agreed to hear the case and appointed counsel to represent him. The decision it handed down affirmed the Sixth Amendment promise that every criminal defendant — even an indigent one — shall have “the Assistance of Counsel for his defence.”
Related posts are in the indigent defense index.