Civil Rights

Fifty years later, how is the justice system living up to the Gideon ideal?


Illustration by Roberto Parada

In June 1962, when the U.S. Supreme Court granted review of the handwritten pauper’s appeal from a Florida inmate named Clarence Earl Gideon, the court correspondent of the New York Times immediately knew he had a good news story on his hands. And, he thought, it was likely to be something more.

The correspondent was Anthony Lewis, then a 35-year-old Harvard graduate in his seventh year covering legal affairs in the Times’ Washington bureau. Even before he got a good look at Gideon’s appeal, in which the man convicted of breaking into and entering a pool hall had sought the aid of a lawyer at his trial, Lewis realized from the Supreme Court’s order that it would consider overruling a key precedent on the provision of counsel to indigent defendants.

Lewis had recently been asked to write a children’s book about the Supreme Court, and his initial thought was that Gideon’s case might make for a good chapter or vignette in such a book. Luckily, for generations of readers, Lewis soon realized that the case was ripe for a full-fledged book of its own. That book was Gideon’s Trumpet, which concisely tells the story of one of the most important criminal justice cases from the era of Chief Justice Earl Warren.

“The case had a lot of things going for it,” says Lewis, who was interviewed in January, two months before the 50th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s eventual decision in Gideon v. Wainwright. “First, how wonderful that it has a biblical name associated with it. And it’s a case about one human being. It’s not hard for anyone to relate to that.”

In its Gideon decision, the justices unanimously overruled a 1942 case, Betts v. Brady, and held that the Sixth Amendment’s guarantee of counsel was a fundamental right made applicable to the states through the 14th Amendment. Justice Hugo L. Black wrote for the court that it was an “obvious truth” that a fair trial for an indigent defendant could not be guaranteed without the assistance of counsel. The “noble ideal” that every defendant “stands equal before the law … cannot be realized if the poor man charged with crime has to face his accusers without a lawyer to assist him,” Black wrote.

Since that opinion—on March 18, 1963—and the publication of Gideon’s Trumpet in 1964, many more words have been published about the legacy of the case for indigent defense in the United States. While the decision is being celebrated on its 50th anniversary, one report after another over the years has documented the nation’s failure to truly live up to the ideal of Gideon.

A year ago, addressing the American Bar Association’s National Summit on Indigent Defense, U.S. Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. said that across the country, “public defender offices and other indigent defense providers are underfunded and understaffed. Too often, when legal representation is available to the poor, it’s rendered less effective by insufficient resources, overwhelming caseloads and inadequate oversight.”

In short, Holder said, “the basic rights guaranteed under Gideon have yet to be fully realized.”

Read the full magazine story by Mark Walsh here.

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