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50 Years Later, Right to Counsel Remains a Challenge for Many Americans

50 Years Later, Right to Counsel Remains a Challenge for Many Americans

By Daniel Buchanan

From left to right, panelists Carlos Martinez, Anthony Graves, Bruce Jacob.


As Clarence E. Gideon sat in his prison cell, he sculpted his letter asking the Supreme Court to review his case. Left to plead his case for himself once again, he argued that under the Sixth Amendment to the Constitution, the court should have provided legal representation. The Supreme Court granted his request, and with a lawyer by his side to present his case, Gideon’s argument prevailed. The justices ruled unanimously that state courts are required to provide counsel in criminal cases for defendants, like Gideon, who are unable to afford to pay their own lawyer.

To mark the 50th anniversary of the landmark Supreme Court decision in Gideon v. Wainwright, an American Bar Association panel reflected on the modern-day challenges that remain for adequate counsel and equal protection under the law.

Since writing from the courtroom during the Gideon v. Wainwright deliberations, Anthony Lewis has reported extensively on the subject of adequate representation and the impact the case had on revolutionizing the American justice system. In his view, most jurisdictions do not provide enough public defenders who can devote sufficient time to each case.

“A decent job is not giving one lawyer — as a public defender or appointed counsel — six times what a common human being can do,” said Lewis, journalist and author of Gideon’s Trumpet. “They are overburdened, overwhelmed, in fact.”

Public defender Carlos Martinez knows firsthand what it is like to have an overwhelming case load. As head of the public defender’s office in Florida’s Miami-Dade County, he oversees 200 lawyers for 90,000 cases per year. He said the work atmosphere is reminiscent of an emergency room, with paralegals operating like nurses. Martinez sought to end the triage-like system, so he approached his local legal community and asked for help.

“(The) private bar stepped up in a big way. We provide training to the civil bar, and they’ve been able to try cases,” said Martinez. “Hogan Lovells stepped up and has provided more than $1 million pro bono in both the trial level and on appeal.”

Martinez’s office also got creative to find ways to save time, like videoconferencing with inmates rather than driving long distances to the prisons where they were housed.

Anthony Graves’ experience as an indigent defendant shows the roller coaster ride that defendants can sometimes find within the legal system.

“I knew they’d have to get me an attorney: That’s my right! I’m innocent, they [are going to] have to afford me an attorney, my attorney will come on, prove the case, I’ll go home,” Graves said, explaining his mental state at the time he was accused. “That’s television. It does not happen in the real world like that, especially when it comes to the public defenders services around this country.”

While Graves received a court-appointed attorney to represent him, the lawyer had no experience with a capital case. His trial lasted three weeks, and Graves was convicted and sentenced to death. Once evidence emerged that Graves was wrongfully accused, it was still difficult for him to gain his freedom. Graves praised the work of his attorney, Nicole Casarez, for her tireless pro bono work on his behalf. That work allowed Graves to be released after 18 years of incarceration. Although the system did not provide Graves with adequate counsel during his first trial, he strongly urged lawyers to volunteer to help citizens like him so they, too, can receive meaningful access to justice.

“I would ask attorneys, if you are in the position to make a difference in someone’s life … whatever the reason is … there is no greater feeling than you having something to do with a man regaining his freedom,” Graves told the audience. “There is no greater feeling. I don’t care how much money you ever make in your life. You’ll realize that the true richest of the rich is helping others.”

Lewis agreed that lawyers should volunteer to rediscover a common reason many enter law.

“The chance to actually commit yourself to saving another human being, or to the defense of another human being, I think is the wonderful thing and the greatest thrill of being a lawyer,” Lewis said. “I’ve seen it with actual lawyers who say to me when they stepped out of their ordinary lives and take on a case of this kind, and win or lose they will say, ‘it’s the most wonderful thing I’ve ever done.’”

Organizers added that one of the first things Bruce Jacob, the attorney that argued against Gideon, did when he was done was to volunteer to represent an indigent defendant.

The live program honoring the 50th anniversary of Gideon v. Wainwright was moderated by Joanne A. Epps, dean of Temple Beasley School of Law, and was sponsored by the ABA Section of Litigation.

To watch the program, click here.

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