We owe our American ideal of public defense to an aging drifter and a brilliant lawyer from Memphis
This week, our office and defender systems across the country celebrated Public Defense Week in collaboration with the National Association for Public Defense. Each day this week, we focused on a vital issue our public defenders and clients face: excessive bail, fines & fees; abolishing the death penalty; racial injustice & implicit bias and juvenile justice. All of this leading up to today — the anniversary of the Gideon v Wainwright (1963) decision.
Beginning at age 16, Clarence Earl Gideon spent much of his life in and out of prison for thefts, burglaries and robberies. In fact, his first experience with incarceration came by way of his mother, who hauled him into a Hannibal, Missouri jail for running away from home. Throughout his 61 years, Gideon would serve time in Missouri, Kansas and Texas prisons. His final, and what would become, pivotal brush with the law was a 1961 arrest for allegedly breaking into the vending machines in a Panama City, Florida, pool hall.
Gideon claimed innocence and asked for a court-appointed attorney. The judge denied his request, citing state law, which only allowed for court-appointed counsel in capital cases. So Gideon, a high school dropout, was left to defend himself. Not surprisingly, he was found guilty and sentenced to five years in prison. Determined, Gideon filed a habeus corpus petition with the Florida Supreme Court claiming the lack of a court advocate was unconstitutional. The Florida court denied his petition, but the U.S. Supreme Court eventually reviewed it.
In 1963, Memphian Abe Fortas and a team of highly respected lawyers argued Clarence Gideon’s case, and the court issued a unanimous decision finding that his conviction was unconstitutional. The Court held that the Sixth Amendment provides the right to appointed counsel in state felony cases. The Court further held that providing counsel for indigent defendants is an essential element of a “fair trial” and that because of the Fourteenth Amendment, the states are responsible for meeting this mandate.
Clarence Gideon was eventually given appointed counsel on the original charges and was acquitted.
March 18th, 2017 marks the 54th Anniversary of Gideon vs Wainwright (1963).
But the legacy of Gideon stands on uneven ground in Shelby County and throughout this country. The Shelby County Public Defender system and many across the U.S. are underfunded and overflowing with poor clients. It is a scenario too often thrust upon the backs of the poor and uneducated – the Clarence Earl Gideons of today.
You may never need the help of a public defender, but the safety of our community and, certainly, the health of our democracy, depends on everyone, regardless of income, receiving a fair shake in the courtroom.
Read more about the Gideon case and its ties to Memphis here:
You can see how public defenders across the country celebrated public defense and shined a light on issues facing defenders and their clients by looking at these hashtags on Facebook and Twitter #DefendGideon #TippingtheScales #CelebratePublicDefense
Join our office and defenders across the country as we recognize the lawyers, investigators, social workers, mediation specialists, law clerks, paralegals and support staff who fight on behalf of their clients every day.
The Law Offices of the Shelby County Public Defender are powered by more than 80 lawyers and 40 support staff and managers. Sounds like a huge staff. Until you realize those attorneys represent 35 thousand people a year. Many of our lawyers have caseloads more than twice that recommended by the U.S. Justice Department. Try protecting someone’s constitutional rights when you have 900 cases.
Some of the best trained lawyers from some of the best law schools in the country work in our office. We either need more of them or if you ask us, we’d rather have a smaller, smarter and more humane criminal justice system – one that points people toward more productive lives instead of setting them up for a quick return to jail.
For nearly a century — the Shelby County Public Defender’s Office has provided zealous counsel to tens of thousands of people. We are proud of this tradition and are dedicated to building upon it. You can watch this video about the incredible story that sparked the founding of the 3rd oldest public defense system in the country.
During this Public Defense Week our office and defenders across the country in collaboration with the National Association for Public Defense are sharing stories and statistics to honor the anniversary of Gideon v Wainwright (1963) the landmark Supreme Court decision that established public defender offices across the country. Go to these hashtags on Facebook and Twitter #CelebratePublicDefense #DefendGideon #TippingtheScales
We need lawmakers, community leaders and all of our neighbors to support the work of our public defenders and staff. We need you to fight policies that decimate neighborhoods and put scores of people, disproportionately people of color, in cages. We need people like you to fight these policies that negatively affect their lives and those of their loved ones long after they’ve completed their sentences.
Here’s what you can do to support public defenders and their clients:
This article was originally published in the Commercial Appeal on February 26, 2015. Republished with permission from the Commercial Appeal.
Memphis lawyer Bill Haltom recently published “The Other Fellow Might Be Right,” a delightful account of Senator Howard Baker that celebrates the Tennessee lawyer’s civility and commitment to building systems of governance that stand the test of time and serve our communities well.
Too often in our public policy discourse we fail to recognize the merits of healthy debate, the potential of compromise and the benefits of incorporating different opinions. Sen. Baker appreciated each of these things and understood that good government requires civility, and it values contributions from all sides. In that spirit, I encourage our state lawmakers to move with careful deliberation before repealing a law that has safeguarded the integrity of our local justice system for more than two decades.
House Bill 241, sponsored by Rep. Curry Todd, would eliminate the requirement that Shelby County increase funding to the public defender at 75% of increases for the prosecution.
I understand why our District Attorney General would want the requirement repealed. Finding revenue sources for the work of both our staffs is an ongoing challenge and is increasingly frustrating as both sides strive to ensure the integrity of the criminal justice system for all citizens of Shelby County.
Dist. Atty. Gen. Weirich has a point. There are deep, systemic problems with the way our criminal justice system is funded. Frankly, I wish our state lawmakers were debating bold criminal justice reforms like those enacted in so many Southern states; the resulting legislation has reduced demand on overwhelmed and costly criminal justice systems. Tennessee lawmakers should be looking to our neighbors in Kentucky and Georgia and even to Texas and Florida. These states have enacted cost-saving criminal justice reform measures that have reduced the size of jail and prison populations, while they continue to experience falling crime rates, just like the rest of the country.
Instead, we are left with a proposal to erase a sensible law that has worked for 23 years to maintain some balance between public defenders and prosecutors and control criminal justice costs.
The real problem, however, is that spending on criminal justice systems has been gradually shifted from the state to local taxpayers. This has never been more evident than with prosecution and defender services in Shelby County. The General Assembly should fix this by providing adequate resources to both sides. Repealing the 75% Rule will only make things worse. There are consequences to consider before proceeding with such a one-dimensional response.
It is a near certainty that passage of this bill will lead to significant new local funding for the prosecution. Additional prosecution resources will inevitably lead to increased demand on our court systems and local jails. Public defenders play a critical role in meeting those demands.
To grow one side of this equation while simultaneously shrinking the other is a recipe for rapidly escalating costs elsewhere in Shelby County. Jail costs will go up; courts will slow down. And the quality of our justice system will suffer.
I believe Senator Baker would have insisted that the quality of our justice system is paramount – that there must be balance. There is a growing mandate to confront what even the United States Department of Justice acknowledges is a national crisis in public defense, and advocates as diverse as Koch Industries and the MacArthur Foundation agree that well-resourced and properly functioning systems for public defense are essential.
Rather than simply deciding whether House Bill 241 should be passed, I encourage Tennessee lawmakers to further study these funding disparities and determine the real costs of dismantling a long-standing, smartly designed rule that preserves some balance and fiscal restraint. I oppose passage of HB241 as a narrow solution to a broad problem, but I am not opposed to careful consideration of what it might take to build a better, more cost-effective criminal justice system.
Stephen Bush is the Shelby County Public Defender.