In the early sixties, the Supreme Court under the leadership of Chief Justice Earl Warren decided Gideon v. Wainwright, 372 U.S. 335 (1963), the case that required states to provide counsel to defendants, in criminal cases, who could not afford an attorney. In a 9-0 decision penned by Justice Hugo Black, the Court stated:
“That government hires lawyers to prosecute and defendants who have money hire lawyers to defend are the strongest indications of the wide-spread belief that lawyers in criminal courts are necessities, not luxuries.”
Public defenders take great pride in this opinion — I’ve even seen the citation tattooed on some attorneys. It’s our ride-or-die anthem, the encapsulation of why public defense is necessary for all of us in the United States.
But the question is: does anyone really care? That is to say, in 2017, has the promise of Gideon come to its full fruition?
Anyone who has worked in a public defense office, either as a clerk, investigator, social worker, or attorney, can tell you that minimal resources are being devoted to support the constitutional right-to-an-attorney of indigent defendants. Some offices are funded primarily through such unstable sources as revenue from traffic tickets, others are located in states that have failed to pass the case cap legislation necessary for offices to hire more attorneys and bring caseloads down. Across the board, local governments are telling their constituents that they in fact do not care — “Sure,” I imagine them saying, “you may have ‘the right to an attorney,’ but don’t get too pushy. We’re doing you a favor, here — you are a criminal after all.”
It’s a wonder that anyone would want to go into this line of work, what with the seemingly endless stream of obstacles both clients and their attorneys face. But here we are. And in the meantime, I’ve got the words of the Supreme Court and its promise to Mr. Gideon to sustain me.
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