Gideon’s Promise Includes Right to Fair Trial

Fifty years ago, the Supreme Court decided in Gideon v. Wainwright that a criminal indigent client has a right to counsel in state criminal proceedings.  The underlying basis for the counsel is to prepare a proper defense. The court reasons:

From the very beginning, our state and national constitutions and laws have laid great emphasis on procedural and substantive safeguards designed to assure fair trials before impartial tribunals in which every defendant stands equal before the law. This noble ideal cannot be realized if a poor man charged with crime has to face accusers without a lawyer to assist him.

While criminal defendants have gotten a lawyer, have they been assured a fair trial? 

Justice Policy Institute found that our overburdened and under-resourced public defender system is causing increased prison time, and is having other impact on families and neighborhoods.

For every $1 spent on defense, the state spends $14 on corrections, states the report.  This incentivizes a justice system that is profitable to imprison folks rather than provide a robust criminal defense.

In the civil context, advocates have pushed for Gideon to be extended to civil cases. In some cases, this makes sense especially in employment and housing where the loss of a livelihood and shelter is at stake.

However, the focus of the individual lawyer as the buffer to the enormity of the legal system seems a bit idealistic.  What criminal justice advocates are finding is that even with the right to counsel, we cannot guarantee a fair trial in our criminal justice system.  That requires a focus on the system itself rather than displacing that burden on a under-resourced lawyer.

If we read Supreme Court’s decision literally, our nation’s justice system is premised on procedural and substantive safeguards to ensure a fair trial.  Gideon’s promise is not only the right to counsel, it must be a charge to ensure that our judicial system has in place safeguards to ensure indigent litigants a fair trial.



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