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The Vindication of Hugo Black
By Gerald F. Uelmen
If the landmark case of Gideon v. Wainwright stands for anything, it
stands for the right of a criminal accused to a vigorous defense. Too
often we assume we delivered on the “right to counsel” by just giving the
defendant a lawyer — any lawyer — to stand or sleep at his side and whisper
some assurances in his ear before he pleads guilty. That’s not the “right to
counsel” that Justice Hugo Black had in mind when he wrote the Gideon opinion.
What he really had in mind were the lessons learned in two earlier cases, the
only precedents he relied upon in his Gideon opinion.
Powell v. Alabama,1 the famous “Scottsboro Boys” case, was
well known to Hugo Black. He was representing the state of Alabama in the
United States Senate throughout the infamous trial. In Powell, a very
conservative Supreme Court reversed the death judgments of nine young black men
convicted of raping two white girls. Although the trial court had appointed
counsel for the defendants, the Supreme Court conclud
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