Reflections on Gideon

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and former U.S. Attorney General Dick Thornburgh discuss the importance of the right to counsel for indigents.   

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Gideon - A Watershed Moment

Nearly half a century ago, the Supreme Court's decision in Gideon v. Wainwright marked a watershed moment - and a critical step forward - in our nation's enduring pursuit of equal justice for all. This landmark case provided that criminal defendants have a constitutional right to counsel, even if they cannot afford an attorney, and - as my predecessor, Attorney General Robert Kennedy, stated a few months after the 1963 ruling - "[changed] the whole course of American legal history."

Since then, our nation has taken a series of critical steps - and the Supreme Court has followed with other decisions recognizing the right to counsel in juvenile and misdemeanor cases - to fulfill the promise of Gideon and ensure access to quality legal representation.

Yet despite the significant progress that's been made in recent decades, in jurisdictions nationwide, the full promise of the rights guaranteed under Gideon has yet to be fully realized - and far too many Americans currently struggle to gain access to the legal services that they need and deserve. As a result, children and adults regularly enter our criminal justice system without knowledge of their rights or an understanding of the charges and potential sentences that they face.

While serving as a judge on the District of Columbia Superior Court and as the United States Attorney for the District of Columbia, I frequently witnessed firsthand the devastating consequences of inadequate representation. But problems in our criminal defense system - and instances of wrongful convictions and unjust sentences - aren't just morally untenable. They're also economically unsustainable. Every taxpayer should be concerned about the systemic costs of inadequate defense for the poor. When the justice system fails to get it right the first time, we all pay - often for years - for new filings, retrials, and appeals. Poor systems of defense do not make economic sense - and also undermine the strength and integrity of our legal system.

In response to current challenges, today's Department of Justice - in cooperation with federal, state, tribal, and local partners across the country - has responded to this crisis not with despair, but with dedication. And we're advancing a bold plan of action to ensure that our legal system remains accessible, effective, and a model of success. For example, in 2010, the Department launched our Access to Justice Initiative - establishing a new, permanent office focused on ensuring that basic legal services are affordable and available to those who need them. As part of this initiative, the Office of Justice Programs (OJP) and a host of other components within the Department are identifying and implementing new ways to better understand and address nationwide deficiencies in our indigent defense systems.

Beyond this, through OJP's National Institute of Justice, we are investing up to one million dollars in grants for projects to research critical issues surrounding access to legal services. These efforts will allow us to gain a greater understanding of the barriers to securing effective representation - and, ultimately, to improve our ability to overcome and remove these obstacles. The Department's Bureau of Justice Assistance also has established a new grant program that will provide assistance to help jurisdictions ensure access to counsel at the earliest stage of criminal proceedings, and to establish the structure necessary to increase pro bono service from members of the private bar. In addition, through our 2012 Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant Program solicitation, we have issued new guidelines for recipients, which are designed to encourage stakeholders to come together in a comprehensive criminal justice planning process.

These and other initiatives are proof of this administration's ongoing commitment to ensuring security, opportunity, and justice for every American - and to protecting the rights and interests of the most vulnerable among us. As we approach the 50th anniversary of Gideon, I look forward to building on the progress that's been made in recent years. And, on behalf of my colleagues across the Justice Department, I am proud to pledge our continued efforts to seize every opportunity before us - and use every tool and resource at our disposal - to ensure that the goals and vision of Gideon are fully, and finally, realized.

Eric H. Holder Jr.
Attorney General of the United States

A Vigorous and Capable Prosecution and Defense

As a young lawyer when the Supreme Court decided Gideon v. Wainwright, I recognized immediately the profound effect the case would have on our criminal justice system.

Not long after, I wrote about the impact of the case and the status of criminal defense of indigent defendants for the bar journal in my home state of Pennsylvania. While I noted that Pennsylvania had made "earnest efforts" to provide counsel for indigent defendants, I concluded that there remained serious problems in terms of funding for such representation and the quality of such representation.

More than 45 years later, I wish I could say that Pennsylvania and the rest of the nation have made as much progress in safeguarding the right to indigent defense as many of us hoped to see. Sadly, it appears that while there is more funding and a more structured approach to public defense than there once was, the hopes expressed post-Gideon remain largely unfulfilled.

Too many public defender offices today are understaffed, underfunded, and overburdened. While many of the lawyers who defend the accused are talented and dedicated, the quality of representation of criminal defendants is strikingly uneven and too often nowhere near that provided those with the financial resources to engage their own counsel.

As I wrote nearly five decades ago, these circumstances should concern all of us not because we hold any particular political affiliation or regard ourselves as "hard" or "soft" on crime, but because we know that our criminal justice system - the best in the world - functions at its best only when both the prosecution and the defense are vigorous and capable.

In short, only by ensuring adequate counsel to all in criminal proceedings can we be said to honor the timeless admonition of Judge Learned Hand: "Thou shalt not ration justice."

Dick Thornburgh
Former Attorney General of the United States

Editor's Note: As part of its celebration of Gideon v. Wainwright, NACDL thought it important to publish the perspectives of the current Attorney General and one who served under a Republican administration, as the right to counsel must never be a partisan issue.

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