Karen Houppert is an associate professor at Morgan State University and the author of “Chasing Gideon: The Elusive Quest for Poor People’s Justice.”
In 1961, an itinerant man named Clarence Earl Gideon was accused of breaking into a pool hall in Florida and stealing some liquor, as well as money from a jukebox and a cigarette machine. He asked the judge in his burglary trial for a lawyer. He was too poor to hire one himself, Gideon said, but he needed help with his case. The judge said the state was under no obligation to provide him with an attorney. So Gideon represented himself, badly, and
ended up in prison. But he fought his conviction — all the way to the Supreme Court, insisting that there was no such thing as a “fair trial” if both sides didn’t have representation.
Monday marks the 50th anniversary of the landmark Supreme Court decision in that case, Gideon v. Wainwright, which established the constitutional right to free counsel for poor people accused of serious crimes. Most Americans are familiar with this result, thanks to television and movies; police officers say as they arrest someone: “You have a right to an attorney. If you cannot afford an attorney, one will be provided for you.”
In the 1960s, complying with the ruling seemed quite possible. Sure, it would be expensive for local governments that had to oversee and fund such efforts. But the number of indigent folks accused of crimes was smaller and, arguably, more manageable. Cities and counties established public-defender offices, staffed by salaried lawyers who were paid by the city, county, state or some combination of these; they also developed a roster of private attorneys whom judges appointed on an as-needed basis, paying an hourly rate; and some contracted with a single law firm or attorney for all local public defense.
It sort of worked.
But over time the war on drugs, the “three strikes” laws and the lock-’em-up mentality of politicians have led to indigent clients flooding the courts. Courts are overburdened, and across the country, lawyers for the poor are routinely buried beneath crushing caseloads and working in underfunded offices. Without adequate resources, it’s hard to hire the investigators, experts or paralegals to mount a good defense. The stakes are high — for the man on death row to the teen picked up for marijuana possession.
Attorney General Eric Holder decried the “crisis” in indigent defense when he spoke to the American Bar Association last year. Programs across the country were “underfunded and understaffed,” he said. Citing “insufficient resources, overwhelming caseloads and inadequate oversight,” he worried about a breakdown: “Far too many public defender systems lack the basic tools they need to function properly.”
The problems have been well documented. A 2009 investigation by the Constitution Project, the National Legal Aid & Defender Association and the National Right to Counsel Committee concluded that the system of providing counsel for the poor was broken and that defendants’ constitutional rights were routinely violated. The groups drew from news articles, law reviews and myriad panicked reports that cities, counties and states had generated. Their report, “Justice Denied: America’s Continuing Neglect of Our Constitutional Right to Counsel,” documented instances in which public defenders carried as many as 500 active felony cases at a time (the American Bar Association recommends 150) and as many as 2,225 misdemeanor cases (the ABA recommends 400).