How You Lost Your Right to Free Legal Counsel

Feds refuse to support historic Gideon v. Wainwright decision
By Neal Colgrass,  Newser Staff
Posted Mar 15, 2013 7:00 PM CDT
How You Lost Your Right to Free Legal Counsel
Clarence Gideon.   (Wikimedia Commons)

Fifty years ago, a letter from a petty thief inspired the US Supreme Court to grant all criminal suspects the right to legal counsel—but today that right is effectively ebbing away, writes Andrew Cohen in The Atlantic. The thief was Clarence Gideon, and his case became the landmark Supreme Court decision of Gideon v. Wainwright. "Gideon's story is really a fable," writes Cohen. "A mighty court hears the cry of the lowliest man." That lowly man won an attorney for himself and for all other poor criminal defendants in felony trials who followed. But today the federal government won't force states to fund the system, so overworked public attorneys have little time to represent their clients.

The problem is nothing new, but it's gotten worse as states cut the budgets of public defender programs—particularly in the South, where Texas refuses to fund attorneys for the poor and Georgia herds juveniles through the system "like cattle," writes Cohen. And it's no mistake: States are purposely pressuring defendants to make plea deals, and rendering them unable to review their conviction with an attorney. Solutions? Civil libertarians could sue states into funding the system, or Congress could pass a law that mandates federal support. Until then, writes Cohen, "we are just lying to ourselves and each other when we pretend that there is equal justice in America." Click for his full article. (Read more Clarence Gideon stories.)

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