Access to Justice Fifty Years After Gideon

January 10, 2013

by Amanda Simon

This year marks the 50th anniversary of Gideon vs. Wainwright, a landmark case in which the U.S. Supreme Court reaffirmed the right to counsel for criminal defendants under the Sixth Amendment. To kick off our work on this important anniversary, ACS has released a new Issue Brief analyzing five Supreme Court decisions from last term that affect the right to counsel. The brief “Are We Closer to Fulfilling Gideon’s Promise?: The Effects of the Supreme Court’s ‘Right-to-Counsel Term’” was written by Christopher Durocher, government affairs counsel at The Constitution Project.

In its unanimous opinion on March 18, 1963, the Court ruled “any person haled into court, who is too poor to hire a lawyer, cannot be assured a fair trial unless counsel is provided for him.”

Durocher explains why the most recent Court session expands on Gideon in the Issue Brief, writing“Supreme Court handed down decisions in five cases that open the door to expanding and better protecting the availability of effective counsel in both the pre-trial and post-conviction stages. These decisions recognized the realities of our 21st century criminal justice system and proved that the Court’s last term deserved the sobriquet the ‘Right-to-Counsel Term.’”

However, when it comes to indigent defense, Durocher, also notes the strain on our system, noting, “It is well-documented that indigent defense providers across the nation are overworked and have too few resources.”

Next Monday, Jan. 14, the Court will weigh this very issue in Boyer v. Louisiana. In Boyer, the Court will have to decide whether it was constitutional for Louisiana to take five years to try an indigent man because the state, in the midst of a budget crisis, lacked the funds to pay for his court-appointed attorney. Access to justice is a cornerstone of our democracy. Upholding Gideon’s promise should be a priority for the Court.

As we await this decision and others from this term, however, lower courts can aggressively apply the Court’s decisions from the “Right to Counsel Term,” thereby serving as a check on burdened indigent defense systems and giving true meaning to the Sixth Amendment.