Crime & Justice

50th anniversary of Supreme Court ruling that criminal defendants have a Constitutional right to an attorney

Los Angeles County Criminal Courts Building
Los Angeles County Criminal Courts Building
Jordon Cooper/Flickr (Creative Commons-licensed)

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This week marks 50 years since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that defendants who cannot afford a lawyer have a right to an attorney in criminal court.

The case was Gideon vs. Wainwright. The legal decision in 1963 affirmed that the assistance of counsel was a fundamental right to a fair trail and that no matter the financial status, education, or class, any person criminally charged by the state should have a defense lawyer to guide them.

It all started when Clarence Earl Gideon was charged in 1961 with breaking into a Florida pool hall with the intent to steal. When he asked the court to appoint him a criminal defense attorney, the judge denied the request because at the time appointed counsel was reserved for capital cases. Gideon couldn’t afford an attorney, so he defended himself and lost. A jury found him guilty and he was sent to state prison.

While incarcerated, Gideon sued the Florida Corrections Department claiming violations of the Sixth Amendment through the 14th amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Two years after his conviction, on March 18, 1963, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed with Gideon.

The decision forced the creation of some public defender offices and set criminal procedural standards that are still relied on today in Los Angeles County courts.

California opened the nation’s first public defender office in L.A. in 1914, before Gideon was decided. It is the largest public defender office in the country with more that 700 attorneys.

Kelly Emling is acting deputy chief of the Los Angeles County Public Defender office. She says the office’s longstanding existence reinforces its purpose, especially when fighting for funding from the county.

“It makes it clear...that it is very important to have qualified, competent legal representation in court for people who are indigent,” Emling said.

But the L.A. office is not without funding woes. When Ronald Brown was appointed in 2011 to lead the county’s public defender office, he said budget cuts would be his biggest challenge. The office had to hold off on hiring new attorneys and giving out raises.

Though the U.S. Supreme Court ensured the right to an attorney, it didn’t say who would pay for that attorney, how the funds would be budgeted, nor how much the attorney would receive.

“You have to have an aggressive defense to counter the prosecution,” Emling said. “Otherwise, there’s not that feeling of fairness and we’re not really fulfilling the constitution.”

In her State of the Judiciary address this month, California Supreme Court Chief Justice Tani G. Cantil-Sakauye used Gideon as a way to warn about the consequences of court budget cuts.    

“Gideon is not some old dusty piece of history,” Justice Cantil-Sakeyue said. “It has continuing relevance today because it speaks to us about fairness, and about the importance of the courts, and what is necessary for meaningful access to the courts.”

Los Angeles County Superior Court faces a $50 to $85 million-budget shortfall. By the summer, it plans to eliminate about 500 positions, reduce court services for small claims hearings, and shut down at least eight courthouses.

L.A. County’s public defenders and staff are affected  by those court cuts. 

Emling said she’s shifting staff around to deal with the planned Whittier courthouse closure. Cases that were heard there will move to the Bellflower and Downey courthouses. That means clients have to move too.

“Public defenders need to be where the clients and the cases and the courtrooms are,” Emling said. “We have people onsite at the court locations that do criminal cases.”

Litigants in civil court cases will feel the brunt of the budget cuts. Due process laws mandate that certain criminal court services be provided and that cases are heard within a set time period.

After the Supreme Court’s 1963 decision, Florida tried Clarence Gideon a second time, this time he had an appointed attorney and was found not guilty.

When he died nine years after his landmark case spelled out major reforms for criminal justice, Gideon was buried in an unmarked plot. Later the words he wrote to his appointed lawyer were chiseled in a granite headstone for him:

“Each era finds an improvement in law for the benefit of mankind.”