March 18, 2013, will mark the 50th anniversary of the United States Supreme Court’s landmark decision in Gideon v. Wainwright. In Gideon, the Court overturned Clarence Earl Gideon’s conviction and unanimously ruled that the 14th Amendment to the Constitution requires states to provide counsel to defendants in felony criminal cases if they are unable to hire an attorney. The decision built on the Court’s 1932 decision in Powell v. Alabama, which held that the Sixth Amendment requires states to provide attorneys to indigent defendants in capital cases.
Mr. Gideon was granted a new trial following the Court’s decision in 1963. This time, with the assistance of counsel, the testimony of the eyewitness who had implicated Mr. Gideon in his first trial was discredited, and Mr. Gideon was acquitted after only an hour of jury deliberation.
The importance of the Court’s landmark decision cannot be overstated. But any realistic view of our criminal justice system today reveals that there is much to be done to fulfill the promise of Gideon. Too many poor people have great difficulty securing the assistance of competent and capable counsel, and too many defense attorneys struggle with inadequate resources and an overwhelming number of cases. This important anniversary will provide an opportunity to reflect upon our progress and to identify the critical work we must do in the years ahead.