Preceding Court Decisions

In 1942, a very similar case came across the desk of the Supreme Court. Betts v. Brady was the case of an indigent man, being tried for a felony in state court. He also had no choice but to represent himself; counsel was denied. He too was found guilty and petitioned for his rights. At that time, the court claimed that the 6th amendment was only applicable to federal cases or capital offenses on either the state or federal level.

The rights of the individual to counsel didn’t extend to his situation and his request was denied. Many states petitioned the court, asking for its reconsideration but until the Gideon case, nearly 20 years later, its precedent stood. The similarities between the two cases were such that the Supreme Court presiding over the Gideon defense literally had to compare the two and judge historically and legally which represented the true intentions of the Constitutional amendments.

They found favor with Gideon because combining the intentions of the 6th and 14th amendments, their opinion showed that the 6th guaranteed counsel while the 14th mandated that states must oblige federal intentions. In 1932, Powel v. Alabama was heard regarding a similar issue of representation. The court decided that “the right to the aid of counsel is of this fundamental character. ” (www. lectlaw) However it complicated the issue by adding unpredictable clauses and definitions.

Thus, its overall ruling was mixed and did little to resolve the issue at hand. In 1936, the Court reaffirmed that right to counsel was a fundamental right in the Grosjean v. American Press Co. Its ruling concurred, “We concluded that certain fundamental rights, safeguarded by the first eight amendments against federal action, were also safeguarded against state action by the due process of the law clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, and amount them in the fundamental right of the accused to the aid of counsel in a criminal prosecution.

” (www. lectlaw. com) Under this ruling the both federal and state cases must receive counsel and may not be denied their fundamental rights. Various other cases posed similar queries but none held the force that Gideon did. It clarified that representation was a right, and one that was not beholden to the ability to pay. As well, states were not afforded the right to supersede federal policies and practices. Legally this was an enormous victory but how did the resulting legal situation change? Gideon’s Legacy

“Thousands of persons are processed through America’s courts every year with no lawyer at all or with a lawyer who does not have the time, resources or in some cases the inclination to provide effective representation. The fundamental right that to a lawyer that Americans assume applies to everyone accused of criminal conduct effectively does not exist in practice for countless people across the United States. ” (Press, 2006) In 2003, 40 years after the Gideon decision, questions of representation are still being asked.

One problem is that although the right to counsel is mandated, there are no legal provisions to ensure that it takes place. There is no solvency to the problem. Who is to provide counsel? Who is to pay for their services? What reason would a highly educated lawyer have for turning down $300 dollars an hour for $10? Although idealistically, Gideon provided the framework for judicial equality, realistically it has never come to fruition. William Clark, an Alabama attorney, once the head of the state bar committee on indigent defense, laments the progress of this well founded ideal.

“At a time when our state has recently rejected a plan to increase funding by raising taxes, some would say that if our legislature has to choose between funding services such as roads, schools etc. , and the provision of adequate indigent defense services it is the later that will lose. ’ (Clark 2004) The first problem with the Gideon initiative, as it were is that there is no funding and no personnel designated to accomplish the mission of complete representation.

The second problem is that few states are taking measures to ensure there is representation. There is absolutely no accountability and really no back lash if the poor is unrepresented. Studies show that the indigent are no better off in 2004 than they were in 1964, directly after the verdict. If states know there is no punishment for not providing counsel, and it would seems they would rather let the issue of representation slide, in order to salvage other institutions of the infrastructure.