It took 150 years before the Supreme Court recognized that the Sixth Amendment meant what it said:
In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right… to have the assistance of counsel for his defense.
Until 1963, most state courts in nearly all cases interpreted the right to counsel as a right to counsel as a right to counsel if the defendant could afford an attorney. If the attorney couldn’t afford a lawyer, then tough luck.
But in 1963, Gideon v. Wainright held that the right of a poor defendant to have an attorney is a fundamental right and that the failure to appoint a lawyer to assist the defendant violated the Sixth and Fourteenth amendments.
In doing so, Gideon overruled Betts v. Brady which had held that the Sixth Amendment’s requirement of the appointment of counsel did not apply to the states.
Gideon was a landmark ruling, ushering in the creation of public defender offices, court appointment lists, and the requirement that defendants be apprised of their Sixth Amendment rights in any criminal proceeding where liberty may be deprived.
But a half century later, Gideon’s promise remains truly unfulfilled.
Even though we live in a country where more people are incarcerated than any other democratic country, most of the public regards court appointed lawyers as at best an unneeded expense and, at worst, an impediment to “real justice” by which they mean a summary trial and conviction and imprisonment.
Too few people realize that there, but for the Grace of God, go they. With the criminalization of so many parts of our society, from the war on drugs, to status crimes, to victimless crimes such as prostitution, to white collar crimes and frauds that are little more than excuses to conduct federal investigations, most people are an indictment away from being on the wrong side of a criminal conviction.
An politicians – whether they’re on Jones Street in Raleigh or in Washington, DC – do not understand that if you want to criminalize conduct then a required cost of that criminalization is to pay for the indigent defendant’s attorney.
The defense lawyer as essential to the whole process as is the police officer and prosecutor.
And yet we live in a State where the Indigent Defense Services has been required to cut costs and to develop a contract-based court appointment system where court appointed attorneys earn a real take home pay of less than $20/hour on contract cases.
And we live in a State where hard working public defenders who handle hundreds of cases apiece have received meager, if any, pay increases over the past four years.