Gideon: 50 Years of a Half-Hearted Right to Counsel

The US Supreme Court handed down its landmark decision Gideon v. Wainwright 50 years ago today, on March 18, 1963. In its decision, the Court decided that the federal right to counsel must be extended to state prosecutions:

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

In the 50 years since Gideon, state legislatures have half-heartedly complied with its mandate. State public defenders are egregiously under-funded, but the blogger who calls himself Gideon says it is not so much a funding problem as a not-giving-a-shit problem: “What the Constitution (and by extension Gideon) did not provide is the will to enforce that right. That will comes entirely from the people. And the people for about 49 years now, haven’t given a shit.”

That is, obviously, because everybody thinks criminals should be in jail. Due process and stuff like that are just expensive obstacles to justice. Nobody wants to acknowledge that criminals are — perhaps ironically — the ones standing up for the rights of everyone else. As a result of this collective blindness to the whole point of the right to counsel, politicians avoid supporting more funding for indigent defense, knowing that it will not help them get elected.

In any case, that means that states across the country are shirking their constitutional responsibility to provide competent counsel to indigent defendants facing jail time. (Competence here does not just describe ability and experience. The best lawyer in the country could not provide competent counsel to the flood of clients for which public defenders are responsible.) Many people realize this is not fair, but few are willing or able to do anything about it. On the plus side, a lot of journalists and bloggers are at least talking about it.

Here are just a few of the many articles and blog posts about Gideon on its anniversary:


1 Comment

  1. Avatar Ted says:

    At least in my state, the worst failure of the Gideon mandate lies with our system for appointing counsel when the public defender has a conflict. Most work is compensated at $40 per hour, and they cap your fee—$1,500 for taking a second-degree murder from indictment to trial, for instance. I’m just finishing up a post-conviction petition I was appointed on. It looks like I will be paid about $10 per hour for it, when all is said and done.

Leave a Reply