GIDEON’S PROMISE, STEP TWO

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On this week's 50th anniversary of the Supreme Court's decision in Gideon v. Wainwright, I commend to you Sunday's Opinion page of the New York Times, which contains a thought-provoking piece about the unkept promise of the Gideon decision, "Gideon's Promise, Still Unkept." I also commend to you an article from the New York Times on March 15, entitled "Right to Lawyer can be Empty Promise for Poor."

The editorial and the article commemorate the 50th anniversary of the famous Gideon decision, establishing a right to counsel in most criminal cases. But we are a long way from realizing the intentions of the Gideon decision. Underfunded and understaffed offices, lack of standards, and political pressures cause many public defender offices to be unable to provide the level of representation needed or intended. Incredibly, our Supreme Court has ruled that even when a defense lawyer fell asleep in the courtroom, this did not constitute a basis for a new trial.

For me personally, I have to say that having worked as a Public Defender in Cumberland County, I found the office to be staffed with well trained and very effective staff. I experienced the highest levels of competency and I would not want to paint all defender systems as inadequate. Cumberland County is a financially healthy county, making it much achievable to provide appropriate levels of representation. But in many places, inadequate resources are devoted to fulfillment of the promise of a fair criminal justice system.

One might call the achievement of adequate levels of representation the step two of Gideon. But we also have much further go to achieve adequate levels of representation in the civil law system. I call that also to be step two. 

Try this sometime and see the response you get. Ask your friends or colleagues who are not legal professionals whether they believe there is a right to an appointed attorney for families facing loss of their home due to foreclosure or eviction, or for a victim of domestic violence seeking a protection from abuse order and you’ll find most people believe there is such a right. Of course, there is not, at least not yet. You’ll find similar responses on questions involving certain custody cases and other areas involving basic human needs.

I’m pleased that the American Bar Association, the Pennsylvania Bar Association, and many county bar associations in Pennsylvania have passed resolutions, urging a right to counsel, at government expenses, in civil cases where basic human needs are at stake.

In the meantime, a recent study showed that for each person represented by a legal aid program in the United States (and in Pennsylvania too), another person asking for help, and eligible for services is turned away. Governmental support has been flat for many years. At a time when many more people are eligible for legal services, due to our stagnant economy, and many people who were middle class are no longer, due to loss of job, the need for legal aid today is greater than ever.

To me, the celebration of fifty years of the Gideon ruling serves as a reminder of the need for step two. On the criminal side, we must assure that the promise of Gideon is realized and that those charged with crimes have a meaningful and professional defense, not just window dressing. On the civil side, we must move forward to assure that when basic human needs are at stake, a person can be appointed counsel if they cannot afford counsel.

Celebrate with me, and work for these advances.