Prior to March 18, 1963, criminal defendants unable to afford legal counsel faced uncertain odds in a justice system that guaranteed no provision for their fair representation. While the United States Supreme Court, in its 1932 Powell v. Alabama decision, had upheld the right to court-appointed counsel under the Sixth and Fourteenth Amendments of the U.S. Constitution in some capital cases, the court’s 1942 Betts v. Brady decision, rooted in a Maryland robbery, denied criminal defendants at the state level the right to court-appointed counsel. Thus, for the next two decades, the criminal defendant’s inability to pay for legal representation did not necessarily constitute a violation of due process in the eyes of the law.
All of that changed, however, on that late-March day, when the Supreme Court laid the foundation for a new paradigm – and the public defender system as we know it today – with its landmark decision Gideon v. Wainwright.
“The Gideon case was one of several landmark Supreme Court cases in the ’60s that forever changed the landscape of criminal justice in America,” says MSBA President John P. Kudel. “That unanimous decision guaranteed to all criminal defendants the right to an attorney, regardless of their ability to pay.”
The case stemmed from a June 3, 1961, burglary at the Bay Harbor Pool Room in Panama City, Florida. The billiard hall’s cash register and cigarette machine had been robbed. Acting on the testimony of an eyewitness, police arrested and charged a 50-year-old indigent named Clarence Earl Gideon with the crime.
Unable to afford legal counsel, Gideon asked for a court-appointed lawyer. The judge denied his request, citing that Florida law made no such provision for non-capital cases. As such, Gideon defended himself, unsuccessfully; the jury found him guilty, and he was sentenced to five years in state prison.
However, Gideon remained convinced that, having lacked legal representation, he had been unfairly convicted. From prison, Gideon pleaded his case directly to the Florida Supreme Court, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and the United States Supreme Court, arguing that the State of Florida had violated his right to counsel as provided under the Sixth Amendment and Fourteenth Amendments.
In 1962, the nation’s highest court agreed to hear Gideon’s case, appointing future Supreme Court Justice Abraham Fortas to represent him against Florida Assistant Attorney General Bruce R. Jacob. Oral arguments were heard on January 15, 1963. On March 18, the court issued its decision, unanimously ruling in favor of Gideon and, in the process, overruling the conditional representation that Betts v. Brady had established a generation earlier.
While the high court’s decision did not directly free Gideon, he was granted a new trial on August 5, 1963, this time represented by court-appointed counsel W. Fred Turner. The jury acquitted the defendant after one hour of deliberation.
Though Gideon himself succumbed to cancer only nine years later, the ramifications of his landmark case continue to echo throughout our criminal justice system a half-century later. The decision led to the widespread creation of state-funded public defender systems throughout the country, including Maryland, which, through action of the state legislature, established the Office of the Public Defender (OPD) as an independent state agency in 1972.
Today, as Maryland’s largest legal organization, the OPD employs nearly 600 attorneys who represent eligible individuals in Circuit, District, and Juvenile Courts across the state. Last year, it handled approximately 234,000 cases.
“Gideon paved the way for the creation of the current public defender system in place in all states,” says Kudel.
Legal institutions across Maryland will mark the anniversary with various special events, including the OPD’s own yearlong “Gideon Lecture Series” and the University of Maryland’s Francis King Carey School of Law’s “Gideon at Fifty: Fulfilling the Promise of Right to Counsel for Indigent Defendants” symposium on March 22.