50 years ago, a Florida case made history

March of this year marked the fiftieth anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark decision in Gideon v. Wainwright, the case that ruled a defendant who could not afford a lawyer was constitutionally entitled to have one provided by the state. But fifty years on, the right to counsel as set forth of Gideon is being undermined by budgetary woes at the state and local level.

Clarence Earl Gideon was a 51-year-old Florida drifter who was arrested and charged with the theft of some coins from a jukebox and a vending machine during a break-in at a Panama City pool hall. He was also accused of stealing some beer and wine during the burglary.

At a court appearance Gideon told the judge he was too poor to afford a lawyer and requested that one be appointed for him. The judge turned him down, because under Florida law at the time, court-appointed lawyers were only provided in capital cases. The felony theft charges Gideon was facing did not qualify. He was convicted and sentenced to five years in prison.

Gideon believed his right to counsel had been violated. In the prison library, he wrote a now-famous petition to the U.S. Supreme Court, requesting that the Court decide whether he had a right to a court-appointed lawyer.

The Supreme Court ultimately ruled, on March 18, 1963, that Gideon indeed had a right to counsel under the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. He got a new trial, with a lawyer to defend him. This time the jury found him not guilty.

Gideon has had far reaching consequences and a number of events have been held at law schools and other venues to celebrate the decision’s fiftieth anniversary. But many say that the full promise of Gideon has not been realized. Due to budgetary constraints, public defenders’ offices around the country are underfunded and their attorneys grievously overworked. Many of the lawyers who work as public defenders are highly skilled. But their ability to mount a credible defense is severely compromised when they are required to handle literally hundreds of cases at a time, as many are. Gideon was a great decision, but we have a long way to go before a meaningful right to counsel is truly available to all.

Source: Huffington Post, “Gideon v. Wainwright Anniversary Highlights Lingering Problems,” Mark Sherman, March 17, 2013


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