by Samantha Batel
At the beginning of the recent fall semester, Professor Russell Christopher asked the students in his Criminal Procedure class at the University of Tulsa College of Law to raise their hand if they had heard of Gideon. Out of the 40 second and third year students present, only two hands went up.
Clarence Earl Gideon, the man to which Professor Christopher was referring, was the Plaintiff in the 1963 landmark Supreme Court case Gideon v. Wainwright, which held that the Sixth Amendment’s guarantee of counsel applies to the states.
This year, Gideon celebrates its 50th anniversary. Law schools across the country have commemorated the case for both legal instruction and historical edification. This milestone, however, has also been met with a critical eye. Indeed, the real topic of study is not what Gideon was meant to accomplish, but whether it has succeeded.
In her new book, “Chasing Gideon: The Elusive Quest for Poor People’s Justice,” author Karen Houppert describes a crisis in our nation’s courts. Discussing her work with the ACS Student Chapter at Harvard Law School, Ms. Houppert explained that the war on drugs, mandatory minimum sentencing, tough-on-crime policies and pre-trial incarceration have overtaxed our public defense system. She described one defendant in Spokane, Washington who was acquitted of vehicular manslaughter in 2004 only after the public defender was able to obtain a delay in the trail so that he could fully investigate the case, something that would have been impossible without the delay due to the defender’s caseload. That same year, a twelve-year-old boy pled guilty to a class B felony having never had an independent interview with his public defender, who was handling 440 other cases.