Gideon will be revisited, 50 years after decision

Landmark case established defendants' right to an attorney

Photo/State Archives of Florida

Clarence Earl Gideon

You have the right to an attorney. If you can’t afford an attorney, one will be appointed for you.

In the United States this assurance is taken for granted by many – it might seem to have always been the case.

Yet until 50 years ago there was no guarantee that a criminal defendant in a state court would be provided a lawyer. In many states, if you didn’t have the money you were out of luck. The United States Supreme Court’s Gideon v. Wainwright decision changed that, guaranteeing criminal defendants in state courts the right to an attorney regardless of ability to pay.

On March 18, 50 years to the day after that decision was handed down, President Fred Lawrence and a distinguished panel of legal thinkers and practitioners is coming together at Brandeis University to discuss both the progress that has been made as a result of Gideon and the unmet challenges of providing legal representation for those who can afford it least.

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Gideon v. Wainwright

Clarence Earl Gideon was charged in a Florida state court, but he lacked funds and was unable to hire a lawyer to prepare his defense. When he requested the court appoint an attorney for him, the court refused, stating that it was only obligated to appoint counsel to indigent defendants in capital cases. Defending himself in the trial, he was convicted by a jury and sentenced to five years in a state prison.

Did the state court's failure to appoint counsel for Gideon violate his right to a fair trial and due process of law as protected by the 6th and 14th Amendments?

In a unanimous opinion, the Supreme Court held that Gideon had a right to be represented by a court-appointed attorney. The Court found that the 6th Amendment's guarantee of counsel was a fundamental right, essential to a fair trial, which should be made applicable to the states through the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Justice Black called it an "obvious truth" that a fair trial for a poor defendant could not be guaranteed without the assistance of counsel. Those familiar with the American system of justice, commented Black, recognized that “lawyers in criminal courts are necessities, not luxuries.”

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David Bunis ’83, chief of staff to the president, will moderate the panel. Before returning to Brandeis in 2011, Bunis practiced law in Boston for 25 years, serving a wide range of clients including individuals, high tech companies, financial institutions, and colleges and universities throughout New England. He received many honors throughout his legal career including being named a Massachusetts Lawyer of the Year in 2007 and one of the Top 100 Lawyers in Massachusetts in 2010 and 2011.

The panel includes:

Margot Botsford, associate justice of the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts, who was appointed as an Associate Justice of the Superior Court in 1989, and then to the Supreme Judicial Court in September, 2007. She has taught at Northeastern University School of Law and Boston University Law School, among others. Among her awards and honors are Judicial Excellence Awards from the Massachusetts Judicial Conference and the Massachusetts Academy of Trial Attorneys, and the Haskell Cohn Distinguished Judicial Service Award from the Boston Bar Association.

Fred Lawrence, president of Brandeis University, is one of the nation’s leading experts on civil rights, free expression, and bias crimes. Lawrence has written, lectured and testified widely on civil rights crimes and is the author of multiple books and articles. He has lectured nationally and internationally about bias crime law and testified before Congress on several occasions, addressing Justice Department misconduct in Boston and speaking in support of federal hate crimes legislation. Lawrence has been president of Brandeis University since 2011. Previously he was dean of the George Washington University Law School.

William Leahy, director of the New York State Office of Indigent Legal Services, who practiced for 10 years as a trial and appellate public defender for the Massachusetts Defenders Committee before he was chosen as the first Deputy Chief Counsel for the Public Defender Division of the Massachusetts Committee for Public Counsel Services (CPCS) in 1984. He was chosen as the second Chief Counsel of CPCS in 1991. In February, 2011, Leahy began his tenure as Director of the New York State Office of Indigent Legal Services, where he has undertaken the responsibility of improving the quality of representation for poor people in the criminal and family courts throughout the state.

Anthony Lewis, journalist and author of “Gideon's Trumpet,” who is a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner. Lewis currently writes for the New York Times and the New York Review of Books, among other publications. He won his first Pulitzer Prize in 1955 for national reporting when he worked for the Washington Daily News, for a series of articles on the dismissal of a Navy employee as a security risk, and led to the employee’s reinstatement. He has published several books and articles about race relations in America, as well as on other legal issues. He has taught at Harvard Law School, Columbia University and other institutions.

The issue is by no means settled. In his recent New York Times editorial “The Right to Counsel: Badly Battered at 50,” Lincoln Caplan contends that “After 50 years, the promise of Gideon v. Wainwright is mocked more of than fulfilled,” at times because of the lack of funding for public defender offices, in other cases due to incompetent counsel. He concludes, “There is no shortage of lawyers to do this work. What stands in the way is an undemocratic, deep-seated lack of political will.”

As the United States continues to struggle after 50 years with the challenges of Gideon, this panel will discuss the implications and implementation of this landmark decision. “Gideon at 50: the Future of the Right to Counsel” is cosponsored by the International Center for Ethics, Justice and Public Life and the Brandeis University Legal Studies Program.

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