“Left without the aid of counsel he may be put on trial without a proper charge, and convicted upon incompetent evidence, or evidence irrelevant to the issue or otherwise inadmissible. He lacks both the skill and knowledge adequately to prepare his defense, even though he have a perfect one. He requires the guiding hand of counsel at every step in the proceedings against him. Without it, though he be not guilty, he faces the danger of conviction because he does not know how to establish his innocence.”
–Justice Hugo Black’s, Supreme Court opinion in Gideon v. Wainwright, 372 U.S. 335 (U.S. 1963), citing to Powell v. Alabama, 287 U.S. 45, 69 (U.S. 1932).
Everyone deserves the best defense. On March 18, 1963, the United States Supreme Court’s decision in Gideon v. Wainright laid the groundwork for fairer criminal trials and gave hope that a nation’s criminal justice system would provide equal treatment for the poor. The right to counsel is a fundamental right essential to a fair trial applied to the states by the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution.
Gideon was charged in a Florida State court with a noncapital felony for breaking into a poolroom. Informing the Court he was indigent, Gideon requested the Court appoint him counsel. However, he was denied on the ground that the Florida state law permitted appointment of counsel for indigent defendants in capital cases only.
Gideon went to trial and presented his own defense and was convicted and sentenced. A writ of habeas corpus was applied to the state Supreme Court on the ground that his conviction violated his rights under the Federal Constitution. Gideon was denied relief based on a prior decision of the Court’s, Betts v. Brady, 316 U.S. 455 (1942), in which the Court held that the refusal to appoint counsel for an indigent defendant charged with a felony in state court did not necessarily violate the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.
The Supreme Court of the United States granted Gideon’s petition for a writ of certiorari in order to determine whether Betts should be reconsidered. The Court, overruled its previous decision in Betts and held that it was consistent with the Constitution to require state courts to appoint attorneys for defendants who could not afford to retain counsel on their own. In his opinion, Justice Black wrote,
“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. … lawyers in criminal courts are necessities, not luxuries. The right of one charged with a 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.” Gideon at 344.
Justice William O. Douglas wrote a concurring opinion in which he argued that the Fourteenth Amendment does not apply a watered-down version of the Bill of Rights to the states. Id. at 347.
The United States Supreme Court overturned Gideon’s conviction and ordered a new trial with appointed counsel. The court-appointed lawyer representing Gideon in his re-trial broke the story of the prosecution’s star witness and Gideon was found not guilty.
Over 50 years after the Gideon Ruling
The right to counsel has since been expanded to juveniles and for those charged with misdemeanor crimes that carry jail sentences. In re Gault, 387 U.S. 1 (1967); Argersinger v. Hamlin, 407 U.S. 25 (1972). All 50 states and the District of Columbia have since then put in place some form of criminal defense system to meet the Court’s mandate.
However, over 50 years since the landmark Supreme Court ruling in Gideon that established the right to counsel, states continue to fail to provide independent and well-resourced lawyers to fulfill Gideon’s promise. The fundamental problem is a lack of money to fund organizations that provide indigent services. Public defenders and appointed counsel are often overworked and underpaid. Additionally, while Gideon covered the criminal side of law, people can face life-altering events -evictions, foreclosure, child support, and divorce — without any right to counsel in the civil spectrum.
The budget cuts over the years has led to increased caseloads of public defenders beyond levels to which any lawyer could provide adequate representation. People in the system have come to accept the low standards we become accustomed to. As a society, we must not lose sight of justice and the role we play in promoting Gideon’s promise and act to defend it.