Monday, January 23, 2006

The Supremes: Greatest Hits (vol. 1)

Gideon v Wainwright, 372 US 335 [1963] [available here]

To combat the usual lull in posts around here that happens between the Fourth Department's terms, I've decided to post periodically on important or historical criminal decisions (both New York and federal). I thought it appropriate to start with Gideon v Wainwright, the 1963 Supreme Court decision that established the right to counsel for poor people and led to the establishment of public defender offices to provide legal services for indigent defendants. The majority opinion eloquently sets forth the justification for extending the right to counsel to poor people:

[R]eason and reflection require us to recognize that in our adversary system of criminal justice, any person haled into court, who is too poor to hire a lawyer, cannot be assured a fair trial unless counsel is provided for him. This seems to us to be an obvious truth. Governments, both state and federal, quite properly spend vast sums of money to establish machinery to try defendants accused of crime. Lawyers to prosecute are everywhere deemed essential to protect the public's interest in an orderly society. Similarly, there are few defendants charged with crimes, few indeed, who fail to hire the best lawyers they can get to prepare and present their defenses. That government hires lawyers to prosecute and defendants who have the money hire lawyers to defend are the strongest indications of the wide-spread belief that lawyers in criminal courts are necessities, not luxuries. The right of one charged with crime to counsel may not be deemed fundamental and essential to fair trials in some countries, but it is in ours. 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 the poor man charged with crime has to face his accusers without a lawyer to assist him.

(Gideon v Wainwright, 372 US 335, 344 [1963].)

A post over at Arbitrary and Capricious got me thinking of Gideon today; check out Skelly's great post linking to an in-depth article giving a rare glimpse into the life of a newly minted assistant public defender (warts and all).