Pamela S. Karlan: "Gideon" Turns 50

tags: Boston Review, Pamela S. Karlan, Gideon v. Wainwright, SCOTUS



Pamela S. Karlan is Kenneth and Harle Montgomery Professor of Public Interest Law at Stanford Law School.

This spring marks the 50th anniversary of Gideon v. Wainwright, in which the Supreme Court considered the Sixth Amendment’s guarantee that “in all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right . . . to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defence.” The Court unanimously interpreted the Amendment as requiring that states provide attorneys for defendants who lack the resources to hire them privately. The “noble ideal” that “every defendant stands equal before the law,” Justice Hugo Black’s opinion declared, “cannot be realized if the poor man charged with crime has to face his accusers without a lawyer to assist him.” Given an attorney for his retrial, Clarence Gideon was acquitted.

Today, the vast majority of felony defendants depend on appointed counsel to represent them, and the quality of representation varies wildly.

At one end of the spectrum, indigent defendants represented by some public defender organizations receive counsel every bit as expert as the most well-heeled client could buy. But the majority of the states that operate public defender services fail to meet the federal government’s standards for attorneys’ maximum caseloads. And many defendants receive dreadful representation: a shockingly high percentage of defendants sentenced to death were represented by lawyers who were either disciplined or disbarred at some point in their careers, often within a few years of the defendants’ trials. Indeed, there are enough instances of lawyers who literally slept through their clients’ trials to produce a grotesque jurisprudence regarding when somnolence rises—or sinks—to the level of a Sixth Amendment violation....



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