The Champion

January/February 2003 , Page 22 

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The Promise of Equal Justice

By Sen. Edward M. Kennedy

The landmark decision in Gideon v. Wainwright was based on an observation of fact and a statement of principle. It is an “obvious truth,” Justice Hugo Black wrote, that average citizens lack the legal skill to protect themselves when brought before a court with the power to take their life or liberty. Defendants who are denied “the guiding hand of counsel” cannot be assured a fair trial. And as a matter of constitutional principle, the Court could not accept a justice system that provides fair trials to one group of defendants — those able to hire lawyers — while denying it to another group, the poor.

The need for defense counsel in criminal trials continues to be an obvious truth. When defendants are denied the assistance of counsel or elect to represent themselves, the government’s evidence and legal arguments do not receive meaningful adversarial testing, and the danger of unjust conviction increases dramatically.

While Gideon involved a felony charge, the Supreme Court has since exte

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