Guest Column: Preserving the right to a lawyer for criminal defendants

Laurel G. Bellows

Imagine yourself being arrested for a crime. You are summoned before a judge. Presenting the case against you is a prosecutor, who represents the government and its immense power and legitimacy. Who would represent you?

Chances are you would hire a lawyer. But if you have no money, do you have the right to legal representation?

The answer is yes, thanks to Gideon v. Wainwright, an important legal decision that was decided 50 years ago March 18. The case involved Clarence Earl Gideon, who was convicted in Florida for a burglary he did not commit. Unable to afford a lawyer, he was told that he had no right to have a lawyer appointed for him at trial.

From his prison cell, Gideon handwrote in pencil his appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. He argued that the Constitution entitles all criminal defendants to a fair trial by having a lawyer at their side. On March 18, 1963, all nine justices ruled in Gideon’s favor.

Justice Hugo Black wrote the high court’s opinion. He referred to the “obvious truth” that only a lawyer’s advocacy can assure a defendant a fair trial. Black observed that lawyers in criminal courts “are necessities, not luxuries.”

Gideon was granted a new trial and found not guilty. He was acquitted based largely on evidence discovered by his court-appointed lawyer.

An American hero, Gideon paved the way for public defenders such as Amy Loeliger of Los Angeles. She had a client who was arrested as a juvenile and subsequently tried as an adult for murder. The boy was poor, so Loeliger was assigned to his case.

Loeliger presented evidence that her young client confessed only because he faced hostile threats from interrogators. She secured an expert witness who testified about the unreliability of eyewitness identifications. She found a former teacher and an elderly neighbor who attested to the defendant’s character.

The jury found the boy not guilty. He has stayed out of trouble since.

Gideon’s 50th anniversary gives us a golden opportunity to reflect on the importance of equal access to counsel for the accused. Unfortunately, the rights promised by the Supreme Court’s decision in Gideon do not match reality.

Every year, America’s courts process thousands of offenders either with no lawyer or with a lawyer who does not have the time or resources to provide effective representation. In many courts, defendants are not entitled to counsel at their first appearance before a judge. Defendants without lawyers, especially in overwhelmed justice systems, are often pressured to plead guilty to lesser charges even if they are innocent, simply to move cases along.

One of countless examples of this problem comes from Florida. On any given day in Miami-Dade County, between 70,000 and 100,000 poor defendants charged with misdemeanors are without counsel.

Even when public defenders and appointed counsel are available, crushing caseloads often keep defendants from having meaningful access to a lawyer. Last year, for instance, the 420 public defenders in Cook County, Ill., handled more than 288,000 cases, an average of more than 680 cases per lawyer. No matter how good a job a lawyer wants to do, handling so many cases makes it impossible for the defender to be thorough.

As we face stretched government budgets, some lawmakers feel that prosecuting crimes is more important than funding defender services. But our American system depends on having equal resources for prosecution and defense. No judge or prosecutor wants to put the wrong person in jail. It is therefore crucial that each side has a lawyer with the time and resources to do a good job and make sure justice is done.

One place to start fixing the problem is to free up defenders to focus on serious crimes. We can do this by reclassifying certain minor crimes as civil infractions, where there is no possibility of prison time. Other defendants can be diverted to drug courts or veterans courts, where they can get the help they need.

Those who ensure fair trials for all criminal defendants are champions of our cherished legal system. As we mark Gideon’s golden anniversary, we must insist on giving courts, defenders and prosecutors enough resources to provide justice for all.

Laurel G. Bellows is president of the American Bar Association.