WASHINGTON - It is not the happiest of birthdays for the landmark Supreme Court decision that, a half-century ago, guaranteed a lawyer for criminal defendants who are too poor to afford one.
A unanimous high court issued its decision in Gideon v. Wainwright on March 18, 1963, declaring that states have an obligation to provide defendants with "the guiding hand of counsel" to ensure a fair trial for the accused.
But in many states today, taxpayer-funded public defenders face crushing caseloads, the quality of legal representation varies from county to county, and people stand before judges having seen a lawyer only briefly, if at all.
"There is no denying that much, much needs to be done," Attorney General Eric Holder said Friday at a Justice Department event to commemorate the anniversary.
Clarence Earl Gideon had been in and out of jail in his nearly 51 years when he was arrested on suspicion of stealing wine and some money from vending machines at a Panama City, Fla., pool hall in 1961. Gideon asked the judge for a lawyer before his trial, but was turned down. At the time, Florida provided lawyers for indigent defendants only in capital cases.
A jury soon convicted Gideon, and the state Supreme Court upheld the verdict on appeal. Then, from his Florida prison cell, Gideon scratched out his Supreme Court appeal in pencil on prison stationery. It arrived at the court early in 1962, when the justices were looking for a good case to take on the issue of indigent defense. The court appointed Washington lawyer Abe Fortas, a future justice, to represent him.
Just two months after hearing arguments, Justice Hugo Black wrote for the court that "in our adversary system of criminal justice, any person hauled into court, who is too poor to hire a lawyer, cannot be assured a fair trial unless counsel is provided for him. This seems to us to be an obvious truth."
Five months later, Gideon got a lawyer and a new trial, and the attorney poked holes in the prosecution's case. A jury quickly returned its verdict: not guilty.
So that was the promise of Gideon - that a competent lawyer for the defense would stand on an equal footing with prosecutors, and that justice would prevail, at least in theory.
A half-century later, there are parts of the country where "it is better to be rich and guilty than poor and innocent," said Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee and a former prosecutor. Leahy said court-appointed lawyers often are underpaid and can be "inexperienced, inept, uninterested or worse."
Regardless of guilt or innocence, few of those accused of crimes are rich, while 80 percent say they are too poor to afford a lawyer.
People who work in the criminal justice system have become numb to the problems, creating a culture of low expectations, said Jonathan Rapping, a veteran public defender who has worked in Washington, D.C., Atlanta and New Orleans.
Rapping remembers walking into a courtroom in New Orleans for the first time for a client's initial appearance before a judge. Several defendants in jumpsuits were shackled together in one part of the courtroom. The judge moved briskly through charges against each of the men, with a lawyer speaking up for each one.
Then he called a name, and there was no lawyer present. The defendant piped up. "The guy said he hadn't seen a lawyer since he was locked up 70 days ago. And no one in the courtroom was shocked. No one was surprised," Rapping said.
Complaints about the quality of representation also are difficult to sustain, under a high bar that the Supreme Court set in a 1984 case. The relatively few cases in which a lawyer's work is deemed so bad that it violates his client's rights typically have an outlandish set of facts that would be funny if the consequences weren't tragic.
"You see too many instances of ineffective assistance of counsel, too many instances where you think, 'Was this lawyer crazy?' " Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan said at the Justice Department event.