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Key ruling 50 years later



Published: Sun, January 6, 2013 @ 12:00 a.m.

This month marks the 50th Anniversary of the argument of Gideon v. Wainwright before the U.S. Supreme Court. In Gideon, a landmark decision, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously ruled that state courts are required to provide legal counsel for those defendants accused of a crime who cannot afford a lawyer.

The decision is recognized as one of the most important of the 20th century. The decision brought into the national lexicon a line known by anyone who has ever watched a television crime drama, “[Y]ou have the right to an attorney if you cannot afford an attorney, one will be appointed for you ...”

Did the Gideon decision alter the legal landscape a half-century ago?

Sixth Amendment

The Sixth Amendment provides, “In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right ... to have the assistance of counsel for his defense.”

In 1932, the U.S. Supreme Court decided Powell v. Alabama. The court ruled that the U.S. Constitution requires defendants in capital cases be given access to counsel upon request.

Ten years later in Betts v. Brady the court refused to extend the right to counsel to criminal charges other than capital murder. In Betts, it was held that a refusal to appoint counsel for an indigent defendant charged with a felony did not violate the U.S. Constitution.

Then came Clarence Earl Gideon, a 51 year-old drifter and petty-thief. He was charged with breaking and entering in Florida. The charge was a felony and when Gideon first appeared before the court he was without funds, without counsel and he asked the court to appoint him a lawyer.

The judge apologized to Gideon and said that Florida law only provides for counsel in capital cases. Gideon replied, “The United States Supreme Court says I am entitled to be represented by counsel.”

Gideon represented himself, was convicted and appealed to the Florida Supreme Court. His appeal was denied and his case made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court. The U.S. Supreme Court appointed a very capable attorney, Abe Fortas, to represent Gideon. Fortas would one day take a seat on the Supreme Court.

Fortas’ argument before the court was deliberate, learned and convincing. Fortas told the court that the federal government already recognized that the Sixth Amendment required the appointment of counsel for indigent defendants facing felony charges.

state statutes

He also pointed out that 37 states provided for the appointment of counsel by statute, administrative rule or court decision. Eight states provided counsel as a matter of practice. In an unprecedented act of support for the rights of those accused of a crime, 22 state attorneys general joined Gideon in urging the court to establish an absolute constitutional right to counsel in criminal cases. Only five states — Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, North Carolina and South Carolina — did not provide counsel for indigent defendants.

Justice George Sutherland wrote in Powell some 30 years before Gideon, “Even the intelligent and educated layman has small and sometimes no skill in the science of law.” Fortas argued in Gideon, “You cannot have a fair trial without counsel.”

The concept was not new. More than a century earlier Abraham Lincoln said, “A person who represents himself has a fool for a client.” Fortas also ably pointed out that when Clarence Darrow, one of the greatest trial lawyers in American jurisprudence, was charged with a crime, “he hired a lawyer.”

By modern standards Justice Hugo Black’s opinion in Gideon was not very long, only about 2,500 words. In contrast, the opinion this summer regarding President Obama’s health care plan, including dissenting opinions, was 392 pages.

Effective Counsel

Fifty years after Gideon the focus has evolved from merely the right to counsel — to the right to effective representation. That representation has turned from insuring a fair trial to insuring effective assistance on matters such as plea bargaining and the collateral consequences of sentencing.

The more important issue today — as states and local municipalities struggle with declining budget revenues — how will public defenders and court appointed counsel react to fewer dollars for indigent defense?

Will Gideon’s promise of fairness and justice be strained as revenue disappears?

Matthew T. Mangino is of counsel with Luxenberg, Garbett, Kelly and George and the former district attorney for Lawrence County. You can read his blog, The Cautionary Instruction, every Friday at www.post-gazette.com. You can reach him at www.mattmangino.com and follow him on twitter @MatthewTMangino.


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