chevron-down Created with Sketch Beta.
October 01, 2013

My Life in Court with Gideon

by Robert A. Weeks

On March 18, 1963, the Supreme Court held in Gideon v. Wainwright, 372 U.S. 335 (1963), that indigent criminal defendants charged with felonies in state courts were entitled to counsel at public expense as a matter of federal constitutional law. I was a junior at University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) and unaware of this decision and its impact on my life. Eighteen months later, I entered the UCLA School of Law, where Professor (and later Dean) Murray Schwartz addressed our incoming class and told us we were there because “we wanted to help people.” Those words resonated with me then and still do.

Later, after clerking for a U.S. district judge and a stint in the Navy Judge Advocate General’s Corps, Gideon became my touchstone in the fall of 1970 when I became a deputy public defender for the County of Santa Clara in San Jose, California. Inspired by Gideon’s “noble ideal” of fair trials where “every defendant stands equal before the law,” I spent the next three decades representing thousands of clients on charges ranging from traffic tickets to capital murder. I saw our office grow from 25 to over 100 attorneys, became a certified specialist in criminal law, and was AV rated in Martindale-Hubbell, a rarity for public defenders.

The decision in Gideon led directly to the founding of our office, replacing the assigned counsel system. The office opened on April 1, 1965, with seven lawyers and an intention to be a “model office.” Diverse for its time, the initial lawyer staff included Fred Lucero and Taketsugu Takei. The first woman attorney was Rose Elizabeth Bird. Bird was dedicated to her clients and to training new attorneys like me. She later served as chief justice of California from 1977 to 1987.

When I began at the Public Defender Office, I was pretty naïve and judgmental. I had grown up in a stable middle-class family in Los Angeles without much contact with lawyers, courts, police, or criminal defendants. But reading police reports, I thought, “How could someone do something so stupid or harmful?” As I learned more about the lives of my clients, I developed compassion for them and learned that violence did not resolve conflict but only ensured more violence.

I was initially assigned to the “Muni Team” of three lawyers who handled misdemeanor cases in the largest municipal court in the county. I had eleven jury trials in my first six months. Of those, seven resulted in outright acquittals or dismissals after a hung jury. Two stand out—my first jury trial and my first “not guilty” verdict.

My first jury trial was a disaster. My client was a Hispanic man charged with driving under the influence. He told me during voir dire of the jury that he would like a Spanish interpreter when he testified, but the judge refused that request. My client then decided not to testify and we had no other evidence to present. The jury found him guilty in less than fifteen minutes. After thanking the jury for their service, the judge went into a diatribe about me and my client wasting the court’s time and that the jury trial was the “last refuge of a guilty man.” The foreman of the jury said he agreed with the judge and I slunk out of the courtroom feeling lower than a snake’s belly. This experience was so painful I repressed it until a few years later when I was training new attorneys and going through their first jury trials with them.

My first acquittal involved possession of an automobile tape deck with an altered or defaced serial number. I spent the morning suggesting to my client that he plead guilty. He insisted he had not stolen the tape deck. During jury voir dire, everyone on the jury panel with a tape deck in his or her car had had it stolen at least once! When the police brought the tape deck into court, it was dripping with numbers! Some were engraved in the metal while others were stamped in paint. I successfully argued to the jury that there was no way for my client to know which number was the serial number or if it was missing. I learned two things from my client’s insistence on a trial: (1) the sweetest words in the English language are “not guilty” and (2) always examine the evidence in advance, go to the scene of the crime, etc. You learn things that aren’t in written reports.

In the mid 1970s, our office got a training grant from the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration (LEAA). I ran the grant for three years and enjoyed training our new attorneys and providing continuing education for the entire office. Throughout my career, I usually had some student interns working with me. They had homework that included reading Gideon’s Trumpet, the outstanding book by Anthony Lewis about Gideon v. Wainwright. I also had them watch the movie Magnificent Obsession, which tells the story of a reckless young man (Rock Hudson) who does great harm to another (Jane Wyman) and of how he eventually redeems himself. I also taught them the importance of good working relationships with judges and prosecutors and of a good professional reputation.

For example, one afternoon before a three-day weekend I had a client charged with drug offenses on the calendar. The client had been accepted at a reputable drug program that had a bed available. I confirmed this by telephone but did not have it in writing. I informed the judge of these facts. Because of my reputation with that judge, my client got into the program immediately instead of spending three more days in jail awaiting written confirmation of his acceptance.

There was constant pressure from a variety of sources: courts wanting to reduce the number of calendars; my office initially denying my request for an expert witness I felt was necessary to adequately represent my client; and the Board of Supervisors limiting salary increases and eventually firing the public defender for his continued requests for additional staff to avoid malpractice suits or state bar disciplinary action. Over the years, I learned an important distinction. I work for my clients; I work at the Office of the Public Defender. Sometimes there is a difference!

Pressure can also build up inside a person due to stress or burnout, which it did with me in what I call my “semi-nervous breakdown.” I was in my late thirties and had been working at the Public Defender Office for about eight years. I worked hard and had what I later saw as a kind of perverse pride in being able to do a job or handle a caseload that others couldn’t. One morning I woke up early in a state of depression. I was in the midst of jury selection in a serious felony case and also had two felony sentencing matters on calendar that morning. I pulled myself together and went and did my job but told my supervisor that I needed to get off the felony trial calendar. I was fortunate to be able to take a month off. When I walked out of my office, I didn’t know if I wanted to see another courtroom, judge, prosecutor, or law book again in my life.

After much soul searching, I decided that I needed to change my attitude, not my job. So, I went back to work for another twenty years at the Public Defender Office. I couldn’t have done this without strong support from my wife, Nancy, and a solid spiritual foundation for my life.

As time went on, I celebrated the anniversary of Gideon in each courtroom where I appeared on March 18. I would get to the front of the line during the calendar call and briefly explain the importance of the decision, how it led to the founding of our office, and the noble ideal of ensuring justice for all in our courts. I even scheduled my last paid work day for March 19, 1999, so I could celebrate Gideon’s “noble ideal” in court one more time!

Two weeks later, I began pedaling my bicycle from California to Florida as a fund-raiser for Community Legal Services. In Austin, Texas, I needed a legal “fix” and went to the University of Texas Law Library and read Gideon v. Wainwright once again. In 2000, I began representing the Santa Clara County Bar Association in the ABA House of Delegates. I have my own business cards with my definition of “lawyers” on the back: “Lawyers are noble instruments of justice who help people.” Professor Schwartz had it right!

Robert A. Weeks

Robert A. Weeks was a deputy public defender for the County of Santa Clara in San Jose, California, from 1970–99. He has served in the ABA House of Delegates since 2000, was on the Standing Committee on Legal Aid and Indigent Defendants from 2009–12, and was chair of the 2013 ABA Indigent Defense Summit.