One of the most important Supreme Court cases in U.S. history, Gideon vs. Wainwright, was decided 50 years ago today. The court said if you are poor, if you are in trouble, if the government is trying to lock you up, the public has to give you a lawyer. This is one of America’s highest ideals: “Equal Justice Under Law.”
Clarence Earl Gideon was accused of breaking into a pool hall in Florida. He was looking at five years in prison. He told the judge he couldn’t afford a lawyer — could one be appointed for him? The judge said “no, only if the state is trying to put you to death. This is just five years, so, no.” Gideon defended himself at his trial. He lost. Sitting in prison, he picked up a pencil and wrote to the Supreme Court. He asked, what about the Sixth Amendment, that says an accused person in a criminal case has a right to counsel?
The Supreme Court decided Gideon was right. He had a new trial, with a lawyer, and this time he was found not guilty. Public defender offices were opened all over the country.
In 1963, when all this happened, I was 17, studying the civil-rights movement in high school. I had listened to President John F. Kennedy challenge young people to do something for their country. I read about Gideon in the paper. It was great news to me. A few years later I was a public defender in Minneapolis. I had every kind of case — people charged with drinking in the park, illegal fishing, robbery, murder. All the clients were poor. Our office was proud of giving them the same quality of legal help that a middle-class person would pay for.
Well, where are we now? There hasn’t been as much talk lately about the civil-rights movement, or equal justice for rich and poor — still important, but I guess we have other things to worry about. Across America, the actual ability to pay for the legal services Gideon requires has been about half what is needed.
Here in Minnesota, we have done a lot. State law provides for access to public defense in all 87 counties. We have smart, idealistic, well-trained lawyers and support staff who work long hours — really long hours.
That’s the problem. The average public defense lawyer gets 250 new felony cases (or the equivalent in other cases) every year. The American Bar Association says 150 should be the limit. Even 150 is huge! Imagine 150 pool hall burglaries — five years at risk — with murders and assaults and arson cases thrown in. Minnesota has 58 percent of the lawyers and staff we need. We have had a “public defender crisis” since 2008.
We are getting a good reception at the State Capitol this year. I’m hopeful. Next year — the 51st anniversary of Gideon — I want to have something to really celebrate.
John Stuart is the Minnesota state public defender.