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Why Gideon Mattered to Hugo Black
By Larry Hammond
Gideon mattered to Hugo Black — maybe more than any case he authored in the last decade of his more than 33-year tenure on the Supreme Court. The case mattered for two reasons, one known by all who represent the indigent today and the second now almost forgotten. Gideon assured that the poor would not face the prosecutors and judges alone. The simple fairness of this part of Justice Black’s analysis could be summed up in a rhetorical question, “If we don’t really need lawyers to make sure that the criminal trial system works, why does every state and city pay lawyers to represent the government’s interests?”
Black had started out as an Alabama prosecutor and knew well the advantages enjoyed in Birmingham courts by the government over those too poor to find a lawyer. Black also grew up in the state that allowed the “Scottsboro Boys” to be prosecuted and sentenced to death without lawyers. Powell v. Alabama — the case in which the United States Supreme Court held that those facing loss of
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