The Sixth Amendment gives a person accused of a crime the right to “the assistance of counsel.” But what about poor defendants? They don’t have the money to pay for a lawyer. If a poor person goes to trial without a lawyer and is convicted, was justice done?
The Facts The Issue The Decision
• Clarence Gideon was tried in a Florida court for breaking into a building
• Gideon said he was too poor to afford a lawyer and asked the court to appoint one
• After the judge refused, Gideon defended himself and was found guilty • Gideon claimed he had been denied his rights to an attorney and to due process The Court ruled unanimously that Florida should have provided an attorney for Gideon
WHY IT MATTERS
The Court’s ruling in Gideon was forceful. All nine justices agreed that Florida should have given Gideon an attorney. They clearly stated why having an attorney was so important.
“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.”
The decision had a tremendous impact on the country’s legal system. Public defenders are state-paid officials who defend people who are too poor to hire their own lawyers.
But has the promise of Gideon been fulfilled? Critics say problems still remain. Many states do not fully fund the public defenders’ offices that furnish lawyers for poor defendants. These defenders are overworked and underpaid, making it harder for them to do their job well. They lack the resources to hire experts to evaluate evidence. Many public defenders are not brought into a case as soon as a charge is made. This prevents them from properly advising their clients. Finally, public defenders so not have the time or resources to effectively carry out appeals to higher courts.
CONNECT TO YOUR WORLD
Research the use of public defenders in your state or community. Then, write an essay entitled “Gideon Today”, in which you explain whether you think the justice system is fair for poor people or not.