My teaching for more than 30 years has focused on the criminal justice system. When I began my career as a public defender in Washington, D.C., in 1978, a U.S. Supreme Court ruling 15 years earlier made an enormous difference for my poor clients who could not otherwise afford a lawyer.
The high court ruled in the 1963 case Gideon vs. Wainright that indigent defendants in criminal cases had the right to be represented by counsel. I am convinced that this right should now be made available to those who are indigent and need counsel in civil cases as well.
Gideon ensured that poor defendants would not face the power of the government in criminal prosecutions without an advocate. Writing for the court majority in the case, Justice Hugo Black stated: "That government hires lawyers to prosecute and defendants who have the money hire lawyers to defend are the strongest indications of the widespread belief that lawyers in criminal courts are necessities, not luxuries. The right of one charged with crime to counsel may not be deemed fundamental and essential to fair trials in some countries, but it is in ours."
The Supreme Court has yet to endorse the concept of a civil Gideon. But it is clear that the poverty in our society screams out for such a need.
I grew up a poor kid in Merced, California. I quickly learned that poverty would be the dividing line between those who had the opportunity to succeed and those who were likely to fail. The latter did not have criminal records, but had problems in terms of access to high-quality education, adequate housing, and jobs.
The pressing factors of poverty over the past century are even more critical in the 21st Century. They require that we embrace the concept of equal justice for all.
News articles report that the 2012 presidential candidates, President Obama and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, both with degrees from Harvard, are having a hard time connecting with poor and working-class people in Ohio. This reminds us that the need to create meaningful opportunities for these people could not be more timely or important.
In Ohio, the rate of poverty continues to escalate and the number of unemployed people remains unacceptably high, as their need for services increases. A recent report by the Brookings Institution confirms that Toledo is the number-one metropolitan area in America in terms of growth of concentrated, extreme poverty.
Organizations such as Legal Aid of Western Ohio Inc., Advocates for Basic Legal Equality Inc., and the Toledo Bar Association's pro bono legal services program provide counsel for indigent clients in civil cases. But there is still a great need for lawyers to engage in litigation, conduct investigations, and provide representation in a growing range of legal matters.
Clarence Earl Gideon made a compelling claim before the Supreme Court, which resulted in the appointment of a lawyer to represent him in a criminal matter. The court heard his plea and stated unequivocally: "From the very beginning, our state and national constitutions and laws have laid great emphasis on procedural and substantive safeguards designed to assure fair trials before impartial tribunals in which every defendant stands equal before the law. This noble ideal cannot be realized if the poor man charged with crime has to face his accusers without a lawyer to assist him."
Given the magnitude of poverty -- particularly in places such as northwest Ohio -- and the lack of any meaningful alternative for poor and working-class Americans, the time is now for the establishment of a civil Gideon.
Charles J. Ogletree, Jr., a professor at Harvard Law School, will be keynote speaker at the Access to Justice awards dinner Monday night in Toledo.
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