Friday, March 18, 2016

It's #PublicDefenseDay!

Today is important but most people don't realize it. That's because today is the day that, 53 years ago, the US Supreme Court held that a person accused of a crime who could not afford an attorney must be provided an attorney. The case, Gideon v. Wainwright, was a landmark ruling.  Prior to that case, a person who could not afford an attorney was basically S.O.L.  They had to represent themselves against the full force of the government's power.  It was a modern-day David versus Goliath.  

Clarence Gideon's tale is not only notable for its creation of the right to court-appointed counsel, but also because the underlying criminal case demonstrated so perfectly why it was unfair to make a person proceed without counsel when they wanted one.  Gideon was charged in Florida w/ breaking and entering with intent to commit larceny, after a local pool hall was broken into, vandalized, and burglarized my an unknown person.  A witness said he'd seen Gideon leaving the pool hall that night with money and wine in his pockets.  That was enough to get Gideon arrested and charged with the crime. 

Gideon appeared in court and requested an attorney to help him defend against the charges. At that time, only people who were charged with capital (read: death penalty) cases were able to have the court provide them with an attorney. When Gideon requested an attorney, the Florida court told him, in a nutshell, "No attorney for you!" (Imagine the Soup Nazi voice).  To which Gideon gave the most perfect, beautiful, and succinct response: " The United States Supreme Court says I am entitled to be represented by counsel."  Sometimes the simplest answer is the best. 

However, Florida, being all Florida about it, still wouldn't give Gideon a lawyer. So, he had to represent himself at trial. And he did. He didn't plead out or plead no contest. He took that em-effer to trial and maintained his innocence the entire time. However, he was going up against a trained prosecutor, who had the full force of the government, police, etc. on his side and who had (presumably) gone to law school and had experience in trying cases.  Unsurprisingly, being outmatched, Gideon was convicted. He was sentenced to 5 years in prison. 

But our hero Gideon refused to give up. Instead, he took it upon himself to write a petition to the United States Supreme Court, arguing he had been denied due process of law by being forced to go to trial without the aid of an attorney, in violation of his Sixth Amendment right to counsel, as applied to the States by the Fourteenth Amendment.  He wrote the whole thing in PENCIL. By HAND. From PRISON. 

He toiled away at the prison library to be able to get this thing together.  It's actually fairly well written, despite some errors in grammar, syntax, etc. He did a damn good job. You can read the whole thing here. And you should--it's not that long and it's worth seeing how this one man's handwritten, penciled petition changed the entire legal landscape. 

And the US Supreme Court decided to hear his case. The Court gets hundreds of petitions a year and they get to choose which ones they want to hear.  There's only a small number of cases they are obligated to hear. Most of the cases that the Court hears are because the Court has determined it wants to hear them. And of all the cases that request a chance to be heard, the Court hears roughly 80 a year.  So, Gideon's chances of having his case heard by the Supremes was not high. Somehow, he hit the jackpot and got his case in front of the Court. 

Interestingly enough, almost as if they were tipping their hand a bit, the Supremes appointed an attorney to represent Gideon at the Supreme Court.  That attorney was Abe Fortas.  Fortas later went on to become a Supreme Court justice himself. 

On March 18, 1953, the United States Supreme Court ruled in Gideon's favor.  The Court held that the State of Florida had violated Gideon's rights by refusing to appoint him counsel and remanded his case back to the Florida court for further action in line with the Court's new ruling.  The Court's decision impacted every criminal defendant in the United States, not just Gideon.  The Court had said that assistance of counsel by a person who wanted it but could not afford it was a fundamental right under the US Constitution and that providing attorneys to indigent defendants was essential for a fair trial and due process of law.  That meant no one accused of a crime who couldn't afford a lawyer could be forced to defend him or herself without the help of an attorney. 

TADA! Creation of the "public defender." 

So, back to our story...Gideon's case was returned to Florida and since he was deprived of a fair trial the first time around, he was given a new trial.  This time, with an attorney to represent him. And you know what happened??? 


Want to know????

Gideon was found...

NOT GUILTY!  Of the very same charges he was previously convicted of and sent to prison for 5 years! Because his attorney--his court-appointed attorney--was able to discredit the only witness during cross-examination and destroy the State's case. And the jury took only one hour to acquit Gideon. 

Five years in prison to a complete acquittal.  Same charges, same case, same witness.  The difference? An attorney. 

Gideon's case illustrates the reason why the Supremes ruled the way they did.  Because it's fundamentally unfair to make a person have to defend themselves in court without help against a criminal charge against a trained, experienced prosecutor.  And if the playing field isn't fair, then the results get skewed. As in Gideon's case. He was unable to effectively defend himself, but once he had help, he was acquitted and walked out of prison. 

It's a great story. It changed the entire criminal justice system, for the better. And, the original case shows why legal counsel is so necessary. No one would perform their own surgery--why make someone perform their own legal defense?  Both are technical, complicated worlds that don't often make sense to outsiders and that have a language all of their own. And both have serious consequences if done poorly or incorrectly. 

So, Gideon's case left a lasting legacy for all criminal defendants. The full force of the law and the faceless government could no longer overrun the little guy. Now, the little guy got to have their own fighter to get in the ring and throw some punches. 

Are the sides perfectly, evenly matched? Of course not. The financial disparity between the two sides is stark in many places. But, even if it's not a perfectly level playing field, it's better than it was. And those of us who are here, in the ring, throwing punches against the giant Goliath that is the government are doing it because we want to, because we love the fight, because we love the thrill of victory against the enormity of the State, because we like helping the underdog, because we care. 

Society as a whole doesn't particularly like us. We represent "criminals" and "bad guys." We get people off on "technicalities" (also known as "your constitutional rights"). We stand beside the loathsome, the unwanted, the overlooked, the reviled, and we fight for them. Society doesn't understand how we can sleep at night, defending people like those in Gitmo or people accused of child rape or murder or any number of terrible crimes. They don't get it because they don't understand it's not just about this one client, this one case, or this one charge. It's about more. It's about upholding the idea that we live in a country that values fairness and justice.  That we would rather have it done right.  That we uphold and protect the things our ancestors fought and died for, that the Constitution was created for. 

I am proud to be part of a group of people who defend those that society reviles.  I am in good company. John Adams defended the British soldiers in the Boston Massacre and Abraham Lincoln defended many people charged with murder*.  If I get to be in the same ranks as those people, I am proud.  

I am proud to be a part of Gideon's legacy. I am proud to stand by my clients and step into the ring to throw some punches. I am proud when I get a TKO on Goliath.

*You can read more about how public defense is awesome in this editorial over at