Four decades after the Supreme Court’s landmark decision mandating that poor defendants in criminal cases are entitled to legal representation, a group of prominent American lawyers says the promise of that ruling remains unfulfilled, reports the Los Angeles Times. “There are still defendants who have not been provided competent counsel – or they have no real representation at all,” the Constitution Project and the National Legal Aid and Defender Assn. said last month in announcing formation of the National Committee on the Right to Counsel to address the issue.
In 1963, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the case of Clarence Earl Gideon that the right to counsel in criminal cases was necessary to achieve a fair system of justice. In his initial trial, Gideon represented himself because he could not afford an attorney. After his conviction was overturned, he was retried and his appointed attorney discovered new witnesses and won an acquittal. Former Vice President Walter Mondale is serving as the newly formed committee’s honorary chairman. In 1963, Mondale, then Minnesota’s attorney general, organized 22 state attorneys general to file a friend of the court brief in favor of Gideon’s right to a lawyer. Many around the country argue today that the promise of Gideon remains unfulfilled, even if an attorney has been appointed. The attorney may be handling hundreds of other cases, have no expertise in criminal law or have no funds to investigate facts or get DNA tests. Four years ago, the Justice Department declared that public defense in the U.S. is in a “chronic state of crisis.”