This year, the indigent defense community is celebrating a great milestone.
Fifty years ago, the United States Supreme Court issued its opinion in the case of Gideon v. Wainwright.
Although prior to that decision, the Sixth Amendment to the Constitution guaranteed a person accused of a crime “the Assistance of Counsel for his defense,” legal representation for indigent people was routinely denied in many states.
In 1961, Clarence Earl Gideon was arrested and accused of burglarizing a Florida pool hall. He could not afford an attorney and was forced to represent himself at trial, despite only having an eighth grade education.
He was convicted. From his cell, Mr. Gideon composed a five page handwritten petition to the United States Supreme Court challenging the routine practice of denying the assistance of counsel to poor people.
The Court chose to hear his appeal and on March 18, 1963, they ruled unanimously in his favor.
Mr. Gideon was granted a new trial and appointed a public defender. In his second trial, the jury acquitted him after deliberating for only one hour.
The decision issued by the United States Supreme Court required that all states provide attorneys to those people accused of crimes. Today there are more than 15,000 public defenders nationwide and thousands of private lawyers who provide indigent defense services.
Mr. Gideon died of cancer in 1972. His case would go on to become a catalyst of a right to counsel revolution in the United States. While some states, like California, already had a public defender system in place, the landmark ruling ensured court-appointed counsel for poor people nationwide. Today, however, the promise of the Gideon decision remains unfulfilled in many ways. Nationwide, indigent defense services are woefully underfunded, putting poor people at a greater risk of being wrongly convicted.
Here in Nevada County, with a staff of eight full-time lawyers, one part-time lawyer, and four administrative staff members, the Public Defender’s Office represents the people Mr. Gideon stood up for. With the strength of our convictions, and our respect for the Constitution, we stand up in court and zealously fight for our community in our mission to protect our clients and the Constitution from a system that is heavily weighted against them. Every time, we help a client, Mr. Gideon’s contribution to equal justice resonates.
Keri C. P. Klein is a deputy public defender in the Nevada County Public Defender’s Office.