Landmark Gideon ruling marks 50th anniversary

Clarence Earl Gideon was a four-time loser sitting behind bars for breaking into a pool hall. But his hand-written appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, scrawled from his prison cell, dramatically changed the landscape of the country’s criminal justice system.

Fifty years ago today, the nation’s highest court ruled that the destitute petty thief should have been provided a lawyer to represent him. The landmark decision, Gideon v. Wainwright, declared it was “an obvious truth” that lawyers in criminal cases are “necessities, not luxuries.” The ruling required states to provide adequate legal representation to poor people accused of crimes.

Some places moved faster than others. Georgia waited four decades, until 2003, before establishing a statewide public defender system. It replaced a hodgepodge of uneven, underfunded and — lawsuits contended — deficient county-run programs. Today, legal experts say, Georgia’s system is much improved but still struggles in some areas of the state to provide effective representation.

 RELATED: Atlanta’s Gideon’s promise works to help public defenders

“There are still miles to go before the constitutional requirement of Gideon becomes a reality,” said Stephen Bright, senior counsel for the Southern Center for Human Rights in Atlanta. “The most glaring failings are the meet-and-plead processing of people, which involves no representation at all since the lawyers know nothing about the cases or the people they are supposed to represent.”

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There is also “immense variation of quality of counsel from one judicial district to another, due to differences in what counties contribute to their public defender offices,” Bright said.

Georgia provides local circuit offices with state-salaried public defenders based on the number of judges who sit in those circuits. Some counties supplement offices with additional defenders to accommodate high caseloads, while other counties provide little or no additional funding.

Excessive public defender caseloads remain a pervasive national problem, Norman Lefstein, dean emeritus of Indiana University’s law school, wrote in a recent book for the American Bar Association. Public defenders in Louisiana, Tennessee, Arizona and Florida have resorted to litigation to try and reduce crushing caseloads.

Gideon, who’d been convicted on four prior occasions, was charged with breaking into a Bay Harbor, Fla., pool hall on June 3, 1961, and taking wine, cigarettes and some cash. Even though he told his judge he was entitled to be represented by counsel, his request was denied. He had to represent himself at trial and was found guilty.

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder called the Gideon decision one of the U.S. Supreme Court’s shining moments.

“We’re in a better place than where we were 50 years ago, but the promise of Gideon has not yet been fully realized,” Holder told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in a recent interview. “There are still too many people who go into court unrepresented. There are places in this country where juveniles can enter pleas of guilty to criminal offenses without ever seeing a lawyer. Adults can do that as well.”

There are also too many public defender offices that are understaffed and underfunded, Holder said. “We have very dedicated public defenders carry far too many cases. Well-meaning, well-intentioned public defenders can only do so much.”

Accused murderers who are exonerated get plenty of publicity, Holder noted. “But we also have to focus on people convicted of lesser crimes who serve time in jail potentially for crimes they did not commit. If there were better representation of those people, I think the chances of mistake would be far less.”

Just a few years ago, Georgia’s relatively new public defender system was a lightning rod for criticism by state lawmakers.

Legislators became infuriated over the mountainous legal fees paid to defend Fulton County courthouse killer Brian Nichols, who was sentenced to life in prison without parole for killing a judge, court reporter, deputy and federal agent in 2005. By the time Nichols’ case had ended, his lawyers were paid $2.3 million.

Travis Sakrison, executive director of Georgia Public Defender Standards Council, said the agency’s relations with legislators and county officials are much better, largely because the system has improved in recent years.

Sakrison said he is reorganizing the agency’s capital defender program to reduce lawyer caseloads. He also said he will also try to help areas of the state where some defenders are carrying too many cases.

“The transition from being a concept to an agency was a struggle, like it would be for any agency,” Sakrison said. “But I think two years from now we’ll look even better.”

State lawmakers have increased annual appropriations to the defender council during a time many agencies endured budget cuts. In fiscal year 2009, for example, the council received $35 million in state funding, according to council records. This past fiscal year, the agency received $39.4 million, records show.

Moreover, lawmakers have steadily increased the proportion of money the agency receives from a collection mechanism set up to finance the public defender system. In 2004, to help pay for the new system, lawmakers added new surcharges on criminal fines and bonds and increased the fees for civil court filings.

But advocates for the defender system soon began complaining that legislators were shortchanging the agency by spending millions of dollars from the collections on other programs. In fiscal year 2012, however, the Legislature gave the defender system almost 94 percent of the collections, up from 79 percent three years before, according to council records.

State Rep. Rich Golick, a Smyrna Republican who chairs the Judiciary Non-Civil Committee, said he is pleased with the direction of the defender system.

“My sense is that there is stability within the public defender system as a result of internal manager reforms, adequate funding and a collective recognition that our local circuit public defenders are generally doing a good job under very challenging circumstances,” Golick said.

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