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Lawyers Journal

Gideon's trumpet for equal justice

In 1961, Clarence Gideon, a drifter, was arrested in Florida for allegedly breaking and entering a poolroom with the intent to commit a misdemeanor. Under Florida law, this offense was a felony. When the indigent Gideon asked that a lawyer be appointed for him, the Florida state court told him it could not, because under Florida law the only time a court could appoint counsel to represent a defendant was when the person was charged with a capital offense.

In his own words, Gideon replied that, “The United States Supreme Court says I am entitled to be represented by Counsel.” Ultimately, in the landmark case of Gideon v. Wainwright (372 U.S. 335 (1963)), Gideon was proven to be right, but not until he had first conducted his own defense at trial; been found guilty and sentenced to five years in state prison; filed a habeas corpus petition in the Florida Supreme Court on the grounds that the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights guaranteed him the right to counsel; had that petition denied; and finally, filed a handwritten petition to the U.S. Supreme Court, where he was granted a new trial and, represented by Abe Fortas (appointed by the Court), acquitted.

In deciding Gideon’s case, the Supreme Court noted that some 20 years earlier in Betts v. Brady (316 US 455 (1942)) it had determined that every defendant did not have the constitutional right to an attorney. Why? Because the Betts court reasoned that while some fundamental rights were guaranteed by the Constitution and essential to a fair trial, not all of them were. In fact, in Betts the Supreme Court decided that the right to counsel was not one of these “fundamental rights.” For this reason, the Betts court ruled that the Sixth Amendment’s guarantee of counsel for indigent federal defendants was not made obligatory upon the states by the 14th Amendment.

Writing for the Court, Justice Hugo Black determined that Betts should be overturned because, “The right of one charged with crime to counsel may not be deemed fundamental in some countries. But it is in ours”.

Justice Black noted that 10 years before Betts, the Supreme Court already had determined that the right to counsel was an essential, fundamental right safeguarded against state action by the due process of law clause of the 14th Amendment (Powell v. Alabama, 287 US 45 (1932)). This was reaffirmed in 1936 in the case of Grosjean v. American Press Co. 297 US 233, (1936).

Using reasoning that many of us take for granted today, Justice Black found that “in our adversary system of criminal justice, any person hauled into court, who is too poor to hire a lawyer, cannot be assured a fair trial unless counsel is provided for him. This seems to us to be an obvious truth”.

On the 40th anniversary of Gideon, the message could not be more clear, nor could it ever be more important than it is today, when state budget cuts threaten the very heart of agencies that provide legal representation to the poor.

The right to counsel has become such a fundamental right in our society that we frequently take it for granted. We assume that such essential constitutional rights as the right to counsel always will be safeguarded. As a result, we become complacent, leaving it to others to protect our constitutional rights and to provide funds ensuring effective counsel for indigents. Too often, we sit back and let others carry the load.

We cannot take for granted the right to effective due process. The fact that our Constitution guarantees fundamental rights, like the right to counsel, makes us a great society. It is the obligation of every lawyer to do his or her part to make certain that the right to counsel for indigents is protected and properly funded, so as to provide competent and effective representation for all who are charged with a crime. The exercise and guarantee of our constitutional rights ought never to depend upon wealth or education.

Attorneys are the only professionals who can ensure the provision of these constitutional rights, despite the efforts of individuals and organizations across the county who believe otherwise, and seek to denigrate or ridicule the legal profession.

Gideon’s trumpet call is loud and clear, Massachusetts lawyers. Will you answer this call to equal justice and do your part to guarantee equal justice for all?

©2017 Massachusetts Bar Association