Fifty years ago today, the landmark case Gideon v. Wainwright was decided by the US Supreme Court. That court unanimously decided in that case that for a person accused of a crime, having an attorney was a necessity, not a luxury, and that if a defendant was too poor to afford one, then the court would appoint one @ public expense. The public defender was born.
The promise of Gideon is still lacking because of terrific underfunding and lack of resources. But the work done by public defenders is a vast majority of the work done in criminal courts.
We win trials for clients. We win motions for our clients. We argue for sentencing that will help our clients get the treatment they need that cannot be received in jail or prison. We negotiate with prosecutors to get charges reduced or dismissed. We explain to our clients what their options are, what will happen at their next court date, and what they can expect.
I've had six cases dismissed at or before the omnibus hearing. In one case, a terrified defendant with no criminal history at all was charged with felony aiding an offender. The law requires that the "offender" being "aided" must have committed a felony offense. In this case, the offender was wanted for misdemeanor warrants, so my client clearly was not guilty of this crime. But the prosecutor & the court had missed that requirement in the statute. After a bit of discussion with the prosecutor, the case was eventually dismissed.
My client didn't speak any English. My client was poor. My client was facing a felony charge. My client would not have been able to hire a lawyer and certainly could not have discussed this statute with the prosecutor on their own. The promise in Gideon came to fruition in this case.
This is just one example of the work we do every day to protect the rights of the citizens, to ensure fair processes in court, and to help people in need. We have a long way to go still to achieve all that Gideon stands for, but we are fulfilling it in some very big ways.
We get called names, get told we aren't real attorneys, get punched by angry defendants, get scolded by impatient courts, and generally are not really well-received by the public. But, I am incredibly proud to be a member of this elite class of lawyers, defending the least among us. I hope that for every one of my clients, I am fulfilling the promise and ideals of Gideon.
Now, go hug a public defender.