50 Years After Gideon, Some Criminal Courts Still Resemble Fast-Food Restaurants


A half century after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that every defendant in a serious criminal case should have a lawyer, “only a few states have comprehensive public defender systems” to ensure that right, says Stephen Bright, president of the Southern Center for Human Rights.

Some state criminal justice systems rush through guilty pleas like fast food outlets, and “fast food restaurants do a better job than those criminal courts do,” Bright said last night at a discussion sponsored by The Constitution Project and the Ford Foundation at the Arnold & Porter law firm in Washington, D.C.

Before Bright and others spoke on the 50th anniversary of the high court’s Gideon v. Wainwright ruling upholding the right to counsel in felony cases, The Constitution Project and the Ford Foundation premiered a documentary film, “Defending Gideon,” which explains how Gideon came about and describes current problems in the nation’s indigent defense system.

The documentary featured Arnold & Porter partner Abe Krash, who helped the late Abe Fortas represent Clarence Earl Gideon at the Supreme Court, and former Vice President Walter Mondale, who as Minnesota Attorney General organized opposition to the State of Florida’s defense of the practice of denying legal help to defendants. Gideon was charged with the felony of breaking into a pool hall. He was sentenced to a five-year prison term after representing himself in court. Krash also spoke at last night’s event.

Bright said that many aspects of the criminal justice system have improved in the 50 years since the Gideon decision, but severe problems remain to be addressed because many states view the Gideon ruling as an “unfunded mandate.” In some areas, public defenders must handle an impossible caseload of 500 at any time. In others, lawyers boast of getting 70 percent of their clients to plead guilty after 30-second conversations about their cases, Bright said.

Also speaking was Melanca Clark of the U.S. Justice Department’s Access to Justice Initiative, who discussed a federal program announced Friday by Attorney General Eric Holder to provide “$1.8 million in new resources and tools to fulfill the rights guaranteed by Gideon.” Clark said funds would go to jurisdictions in Delaware, Massachusetts, Michigan, and Texas to “address systemic failures” in public defense programs.

Clark said a separate federal “Answering Gideon's Call” grant initiative will give $700,000 to a non-profit organization and its partners to support training and technical assistance based on the American Bar Association standards for criminal defense lawyers.

The Justice Department is working with the National Criminal Justice Association to encourage states to spend more of their federal funds under the Byrne JAG anticrime grant program on improving public defender systems, Clark said. She said that historically, relatively few of those grants are used for public defenders compared with other parts of the justice system.

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