Anthony Lewis’s account of Gideon v. Wainwright in Gideon’s Trumpet leaves most readers with a sense of patriotism or faith in the American justice system. Mr. Gideon, a lowly poor man, believed he was being denied his Constitutional rights, and he fought for them. He made it all the way to the Supreme Court, and he won. His case is portrayed as the end-all-be-all, the solution. Because of Gideon, poor people everywhere will be appointed attorneys and escape the injustices of the courtroom.
Those who sided with Florida and the Betts v. Brady decision foresaw the problems with this ruling. They knew that mandating states to provide legal counsel for low income defendants would cause problems. Aside from the issue of taking away rights from the State, the Gideon ruling poses a whole slew of problems that, to this day, remain unsolved.
The first issue: Define poor. Does a defendant have to be below the poverty level to receive a court-appointed attorney? With lawyer fees so expensive, even a middle class individual would struggle to pay for a defense attorney. How about an individual who is recently unemployed? By the standards of checking the previous year’s Tax Returns, this person may seem wealthy; however, are current circumstances taken into account? The Maricopa County Public Defender’s office website offers no explanation as to who gets a public defender and who doesn’t. Their website states, “Before a public defender can represent an individual, the court must determine that the person cannot afford to hire an attorney. Once that determination is made, the court must appoint a public defender to the case.” What does THAT mean? Under the FAQ section of the website, it is explained further, “A Public Defender must be appointed by the Court to represent you. If a court determines you are not financially able to retain private counsel, the court will appoint the Public Defender’s office to represent you. In the case of a conflict of interest, or if the office has reached its maximum caseload, the court may appoint the Legal Defender’s Office, the Office of the Legal Advocate, or an attorney from the Office of Public Defense Services to represent you rather than the Public Defender’s Office. By statute, the Public Defender’s Office is only appointed in criminal matters and mental health commitments. Public Defenders are not appointed for any civil cases.”
If the office has reached its maximum caseload? Can that actually happen? Will needy people be turned away? The truth is that a Public Defender’s office can and will meet AND exceed its maximum caseload. Unfortunately, a court-appointed attorney for those who can not afford their own is often times overloaded with a plethora of cases. The defense lawyers are unable to allot proper time to each case which can result disastrously for the defendant. The Innocence Project, a non-profit organization that works to free wrongly convicted inmates, nods to poor lawyering as a leading cause of innocent people going to jail. Their website explains, “The resources of the justice system are often stacked against poor defendants. Matters only become worse when a person is represented by an ineffective, incompetent or overburdened defense lawyer. The failure of overworked lawyers to investigate, call witnesses or prepare for trial has led to the conviction of innocent people. When a defense lawyer doesn’t do his or her job, the defendant suffers. Shrinking funding and access to resources for public defenders and court-appointed attorneys is only making the problem worse.”
A defendant, rich or poor, has the odds stacked against him or her. While the victim has the state to prosecute, police testimony to support the case, and no financial burden, the defendant is left to either a) hire his or her own attorney or b) if he or she qualifies, an overloaded public defender can be the legal representation for the case. The myth of Gideon’s Trumpet leaves readers with a sense of empowerment to the defendant…proof that we, as citizens of the United States, cannot be trampled by the system. Proof that we are innocent until proven guilty.
But are we?