The right of the accused to a fair trial is one of the most important and basic rights of Americans. It is fundamental to a just society in which the burden of proof in criminal proceedings lies with the state, not the individual.
But “equality before the law” and “presumption of innocence” are little more than nice-sounding phrases if defendants can’t get adequate legal representation. In far too many cases, even today, poor people are deprived of that right because they can’t afford a competent attorney, or because they live in states — including Ohio — whose public-defense systems fail to provide a robust defense for all indigent defendants.
The problem would be far worse if not for a little-known U.S. Supreme Court ruling that marks its 50th anniversary today. The landmark decision in Gideon vs. Wainwright held that states are constitutionally required to provide a lawyer to individuals who are charged with a felony and unable to afford an attorney. Before 1963, people charged with criminal offenses were at the mercy of a patchwork of state constitutions or local laws that often left the indigent defenseless.
Even so, the constitutional right to an adequate defense is still violated every day in states across the country, including Ohio and Michigan. Too often, the quality of justice dispensed in America continues to depend on a defendant’s bank account.
Michigan has one of the nation’s worst indigent defense systems. A lack of state standards and absurdly low pay for court-appointed attorneys have made Michigan a McJustice state. Many criminal defendants never even speak to a lawyer.
Ohio isn’t much better. The Office of the Ohio Public Defender provides some uniform standards, oversight, and funding. But the state’s mishmash of 88 county systems provides “high variations in cost, quality, and efficiency,’’ Ohio Public Defender Timothy Young has said.
The Gideon case is illustrative. In 1961, Clarence Earl Gideon was charged with a felony in Florida: breaking and entering a pool hall to steal some vending machine change. Mr. Gideon was too poor to hire an attorney. He asked the state of Florida to provide one, but it refused.
Representing himself, Mr. Gideon was convicted and sentenced to five years in prison. In a handwritten petition, he appealed to the Supreme Court, arguing that the state’s failure to appoint a lawyer violated his federal constitutional rights.
On March 18, 1963, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously held that Florida had violated Mr. Gideon’s Sixth Amendment right to counsel and 14th Amendment right to due process and equal protection. The high court reversed the conviction. Mr. Gideon was retried, this time with an appointed attorney. A jury acquitted him of all charges.
The court later expanded the right to counsel beyond felony cases. It applied the principle to any defendant facing imprisonment, including those charged with a misdemeanor.
For a just nation, the ruling marked a giant step forward. Unfortunately, cases more egregious than Mr. Gideon’s still occur, as states fail to meet constitutional standards for indigent defense.
Ohio could meet those standards by increasing funding for public defense, and by moving toward a more uniform and central system with state-run local public defender’s offices.
Public defense systems, in Ohio and across the country, have improved enormously over the past 50 years. They are preserving justice and ensuring that more innocent people don’t go to prison.
Gideon vs. Wainwright remains one of the Supreme Court’s most important decisions. Fifty years later, Ohio must continue to work to fulfill its promise of equal justice for all.