Clarence Earl Gideon was a high-school dropout, a drifter, a petty criminal. He worked blue-collar jobs for low wages. He married four times.
Gideon was a nobody who could have been anybody.
That’s why on March, 18, 1963, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Gideonreceived an unfair burglary trial in Florida where he was denied legal counsel because he could not afford it, the message was clear: The Constitution’s promise of fairness is universal. The right to counsel, the court ruled, is "fundamental," and should guarantee that "every defendant stands equal before the law."
On Monday, Gideon v. Wainwright — often heralded as one of the most important legal rulings in the history of the United States — turns 50.
But its anniversary, experts say, is no cause for celebration.
Gideon’s legacy has been battered and bruised nationwide, and certainly in Utah.
Unsupportive governments, threadbare budgets and ever-expanding caseloads threaten to weaken what’s been a fundamental right for half a century.
"This is not an opportunity to celebrate, but to see how far we are from fulfilling Gideon’s promise, and hopefully start over again," said national advocate Jonathan Rapping, founder of the Southern Public Defender Training Center. "It’s a call to order, a civil rights issue we should all be very concerned about."
Each state is left to decide how it will handle the guarantee of counsel. Most — 26 of 50 states — delegate that responsibility to counties.
In Utah, that means a patchwork system with 29 different ways of doing things.
"Every county is sort of left to its own devices, so each county’s decision-making body will have its own idea of how much of a priority they want to make [indigent defense]," said John Mejia, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Utah. "It’s difficult because these counties know they have a constitutional duty, but they’re not necessarily educated as to what it means to provide effective counsel."
‘Woefully undercompensated’ » Utah is one of only two states to give neither funding nor oversight of its criminal defense services for the poor.
That means the representation an indigent defendant gets in Utah depends entirely on what county that defendant is in. The differences can be as stark as night and day.
Some counties, such as Salt Lake and Utah, have public defender offices that function like conventional law firms with full- or part-time salaried employees charged with providing public defense services.
According to those who work there, caseloads are managed closely and rarely exceed national standards. Defenders are given guidance and access to experts. They work in a supportive environment.
But most counties in Utah employ what national experts widely consider to be the least effective and most problematic method of public defense: the contract system.
In this model, private attorneys are awarded tax-funded county contracts to take on indigent clients. There is no limit to how many clients these attorneys will have to represent, and their rate is fixed.
This provides a disincentive for attorneys to fight hard on behalf of their indigent clients, said Kent Hart, executive director of the Utah Association of Criminal Defense.
That’s because the extras — travelling to and from jails or prisons, employing forensic services, acquiring expert witnesses, and so on — can come out of the attorney’s pockets.
"Public defenders are woefully undercompensated," Hart said.Next Page >
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