The 50th anniversary of the Supreme Court decision called Gideon — among lawyers, that’s the only name that needs to be murmured, and what a clarion name it is! — has produced many recent and beautiful pieces of writing.
The best I can do in honor of Gideon is to recognize a few of the essays I’ve read. Most of them tend, though, to be less celebrational than worried, such as, “The Right to Counsel: Badly Battered at 50,” by Lincoln Caplan (with a sad, moving photograph of Mr. Gideon’s cemetery marker), and “Gideon’s Muted Trumpet,” by Paul Butler, both in the New York Times.
For one thing, although Gideon guaranteed indigent criminal defendants a lawyer, as we all know painfully, it didn’t guarantee an indigent defendant a diligent, competent lawyer. And Gideon‘s raveled guarantee depends on a disorderly quilt of federal, state and local legal aid organizations, underfinanced and overworked.
True, some of the best lawyers I’ve known have worked for one version of legal aid or another, but then I come from a city with some of the best lawyers in the country.
So Gideon isn’t perfect.
Nor did Gideon promise a lawyer to all people needy of legal advice but also needy of the funds to pay for that legal advice. I’ve linked a few articles on exactly that subject. Here’s one by Matthew Desmond, in the New York Times.
What prompted me to write my own small, borrowed, delayed and imperfect salute to Mr. Gideon was this, from a elderly British mystery I was reading very late the other night. Gideon was decided in 1963. Look at the publication date of this novel:
“Has he any friends?”
“Only your aunt, Mrs. Everett.”
And who will pay for his defense?”
“Then he can’t have any of the good ones. That doesn’t seem to me particularly fair – for the law to keep famous lawyers to do their prosecuting and not famous lawyers to defend poor criminals.”‘
Grant grinned. “Oh, he’ll have a fair deal, don’t you worry. It is the police who are harried round in a murder case.”
“Did you never, in all your experience, know a case where the law made a mistake?”
“Yes, several,” Grant admitted cheerfully. “But they were all cases of mistaken identity. And that’s not in question here.”
“No; but there must be case where the evidence is nothing but a lot of things that have nothing to do with each other put together until they look like something. Like a patchwork bedcover.”
From The Man in the Queue, by Josephine Tey (1953)