With support from the University of Richmond

History News Network

History News Network puts current events into historical perspective. Subscribe to our newsletter for new perspectives on the ways history continues to resonate in the present. Explore our archive of thousands of original op-eds and curated stories from around the web. Join us to learn more about the past, now.

Poor criminal defendants need better legal counsel to achieve a just society

March 18 marks the 56th anniversary of the landmark Gideon v. Wainwright (1963) Supreme Court decision that granted poor criminal defendants the right to have a lawyer represent them in court in state criminal cases even if they could not afford one. It overturned a prior decision that allowed indigent defendants counsel only in special circumstances (i.e., those charged with serious criminal offenses such as murder in state, not federal, trials).

This landmark decision bolstered the public defender profession, which had been percolating since the early 20th century and forced states to assume the burden of providing legal representation to poor defendants. Instead of a capricious system that varied from place to place, theoretically the court was insisting upon all impoverished defendants receiving quality counsel.

The justices recognized that the right to counsel is critical toward the principle of equal justice under the law, an important legal concept embedded in the 14th Amendment and even engraved on the Supreme Court building itself. But do poor defendants actually receive equal justice? While the courts have mandated representation for all, the dictate for equality before the law remains a lofty ideal, not a reality. As we rethink our criminal justice system, that must change if we wish to create a fairer, more just society.

In 1893, Clara Shortridge Foltz — the first woman in California to pass the state’s bar exam — proposed a model public defender bill (the Foltz Public Defender Bill) that was ultimately passed in 30 states and remains the blueprint for the modern public defender system. The Foltz bill called for a system of salaried defense attorneys devoting much or all of their time to representing poor individuals accused of crimes, who could not afford to pay for their own attorney.

Read entire article at Washington Post