This week marks the 50th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Gideon v. Wainwright decision, which declares it an “obvious truth” that “lawyers in criminal courts are necessities, not luxuries.” The Gideon anniversary deserves recognition because its promise is so lofty, and because still — after 50 years — we are falling short of it.
The idea that “If you cannot afford a lawyer, one will be provided to you” reflects the value that we place on justice. By guaranteeing that every person has an effective advocate in court — regardless of how much money they have — we avoid putting justice up for sale and making it only accessible to people with means.
In Louisiana, and across the nation, more than 85 percent of all criminal defendants are eligible to be represented by a public defender. It’s a proposition that costs money, particularly because the law requires that defenders do more than just stand next to their client in court. Louisiana’s own constitution requires the Legislature to secure and compensate “qualified counsel for indigents” and the professional code for all lawyers in Louisiana requires certain professional standards — like ethical workloads and access to resources — whether the client can afford to pay or not.
Client communication, fact investigation, legal research, motion practice, trial preparation and sentencing advocacy are all essential components to effective, ethical lawyering. The more complex the case, the more time and resources it takes to do it right. Only when public defenders have the time and tools to “do it right” can the justice system hand down verdicts that are fair, correct, swift and final. The public should demand no less, because without accurate verdicts the justice system cannot protect public safety.
Despite Gideon’s promise 50 years ago, there are still insufficient resources for the state’s public defense function. While things have improved substantially with the Legislature’s vision in the Public Defender Act of 2007, there is still a long way to go. The Gideon anniversary is an opportunity for community leaders, elected policy makers and all criminal justice agency members to reflect on why both the U.S. and Louisiana constitutions require a right to counsel, to provide adequate public defense funding, and to work to together to achieve a better criminal justice system and a safer Louisiana.
Frank Neuner, chairman
Louisiana Public Defender Board