The Sixth Amendment’s promise of a fair trial fades

The United States reached a mile mark 50 years ago when the Supreme Court of the United States responded to a handwritten petition on five pages on prison-issued stationery filed by a petty thief in Florida who wouldn’t take “no” for an answer.

Clarence Earl Gideon was a small-time and hapless criminal who in various brushes with the law came to know one thing and suspect another. The first thing was that if you were being charged with something that could send you to prison, you needed a lawyer. The second was that if you couldn’t afford a lawyer, it was only fair that the state provide one. Gideon, who had been arrested for breaking into a Panama City, Fla., pool hall and taking some wine and change from vending machines, asked the judge for a lawyer. That’s when he was told no, with an explanation that Florida only provided lawyers for indigent defendants in capital cases.

That was in 1961, and Gideon was found guilty and sentenced to five years in prison.

The following year, Gideon’s neatly printed petition arrived at the court, addressed to “the Honorable Earl Warren, Chief Justice of the United States.” It may have been the first time in his life that Gideon was lucky. The court was looking for a case to examine the issue of an indigent client’s Sixth Amendment right to counsel, and it appointed Abe Fortas, a future justice of the court, to argue Gideon’s case.

A double win

Gideon’s case not only established an important law of the land, but it resulted in a new trial, and with a lawyer to represent him, Gideon was quickly found not guilty by a jury and released.

The decision in Gideon v. Wainwright was written by Justice Hugo Black and issued on March 18, 1963. “Reason and reflection require us to recognize that in our adversary system of criminal justice, any person haled into court, who is too poor to hire a lawyer, cannot be assured a fair trial unless counsel is provided to him.”

That was just another way of restating what Gideon, in his various scrapes with the law, had come to know instinctively. The phrase, “you have a right to a lawyer and if you cannot afford one, one will be appointed for you,” later became part of the Miranda warning, growing from a subsequent Supreme Court decision, and is one of the most familiar phrases from police-drama television.

But in 50 years, the fairness that Gideon (and Miranda) brought to the criminal justice system has been chipped away at by subsequent rulings of the court and by budgetary pressures that call into question the value of the counsel that is routinely provided may been.

In Ohio there are four systems for providing counsel to indigent defendants, three of which are in use in Mahoning, Trumbull and Columbiana counties. Mahoning County uses court-appointed lawyers, Trumbull County has a contract with the state public defender, and Columbiana County has a contract with a nonprofit corporation. The fourth variation is a county public defender.

A staggering load

The systems stagger under the pressures of low rates of reimbursement or high case loads that call into question whether the promise of Gideon is being realized 50 years later.

And, given the economics of today, the most common response of the public to any complaints is likely to be, “so what?” There are better things to spend money on than lawyers for criminals.

But providing effective counsel to defendants isn’t about helping criminals beat a rap. It’s about preserving the integrity of the justice system. It’s about at least trying to level the playing field between a defendant and the prosecutor who is attempting to put him in jail, a prosecutor who has had access to police investigators, the state Bureau of Criminal Investigation and other experts.

And it is about honoring a concept that predated Gideon, that in the United States, a person is innocent until proven guilty. Gideon v. Wainwright was meant to insure that those were more than just words. The Sixth Amendment is no less important than any other in defining America. To the extent that the judicial promise of Gideon is being diminished, — for whatever reason — our ability to call this a nation of laws and equal justice is equally diminished.

More like this from

Subscribe Today

Sign up for our email newsletter to receive daily news.

Want more? Click here to subscribe to either the Print or Digital Editions.