Fifty Years after Gideon v. Wainwright the Battle Goes On
Date:  03-19-2013

Some states ignore the Court’s decision, while some lawyers can be a defendant’s worse nightmare
Justice-loving Americans owe Clarence Gideon a debt of gratitude. In 1961 when Gideon appeared in a Florida court after being arrested for burglary, he asked to be appointed a lawyer because he was indigent and could not afford to pay for one. His request was denied by the presiding judge who claimed counsel could only be appointed for defendants accused of a capital offense. Gideon was forced to represent himself, and was found guilty and sentenced to five years in prison.

Claiming that his Sixth Amendments rights were violated, Gideon filed an appeal with the U.S. Supreme Court against the secretary of the Florida Department of Corrections. Thus the stage was set for Gideon v. Wainwright. Gideon was assigned the prominent attorney Abe Fortas, who would later become a Supreme Court Justice.

On March 18, 1963 a unanimous decision was handed down by the Supreme Court which ruled that under the Fourteenth Amendment state courts must provide counsel in criminal cases for defendants who cannot afford to pay for an attorney.

Although Gideon wasn’t released from prison, based on the Supreme Court’s decision, 2,000 Florida prisoners were. Gideon was granted a new trial, and was acquitted. Because of Clarence Gideon, untold numbers of poor defendants have the right to be provided with counsel. But many are still being denied those rights.

Fifty years after the Court’s decision, it is apparent that some states haven’t gotten the message yet. Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) introduced a bill,Gideon’s Promise that allows the Department of Justice “authorization to sue states, counties and attorneys that fail to uphold the Sixth Amendment right to counsel.” click here to go to website .

Writing for the Huffington Post, retired federal judge H.Lee Sarokin asks, “Is the Right to Counsel for Criminal Defendants a Myth?” It sure looks that way. Sarokin asserts, “…the Supreme Court has opted for a standard of "effective counsel" rather than "competent counsel" -- a standard which has allowed convictions to survive when lawyers were drunk, asleep, inexperienced, mentally ill or under the influence of drugs. It has decreed a presumption of "adequate assistance" and has made it virtually impossible to overcome that presumption.” click here to go to website

And, in a soon-to-be published article in the Yale law Journal, Stephen B. Bright and Sia M. Sanneh claim that prosecutors have more sway over the outcome of a case than appointed counsel for defendants, and in some cases even the judge. Bright and Sanneh also maintain, “…in many jurisdictions, perfunctory representation and “meet ’em and plead ’em” processing of human beings through the courts remains the dominant culture. Many courts are plea mills: courts of profit that impose fines without any inquiry into the ability of defendants to pay, thus setting them up for failure and return to jail.” You may read Fifty Years of Defiance and Resistance After Gideon v. Wainwright by clicking on the link at the end of this article.

Yes, justice-loving Americans owe Clarence Gideon a debt of gratitude, but we also owe it to his memory to assure that the rights that he fought for are not denied to others.

Sources: Sixth Amendment Center and Huffington Post

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