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Attorney General Eric Holder Speaks at the Justice Department's 50th Anniversary Celebration of the U.S. Supreme Court Decision in Gideon v. Wainwright


Washington, DC
United States

Thank you, Tony [West], for those kind words – and for your leadership as Acting Associate Attorney General.  It’s a privilege to stand with you and Deborah [Leff] today – and to be among so many good friends and distinguished guests here in the Great Hall.  I’d like to extend a special welcome to former Vice President [Walter] Mondale, Justice [Elena] Kagan, Nina Totenberg, each of our panelists, and all of the federal and state leaders, policymakers, and jurists who are here this afternoon – particularly Representative [John] Conyers; Representative [Chaka] Fattah; Chief Justice [Wallace] Jefferson, of the Texas Supreme Court; and Chief Judge [Jonathan] Lippman, of the New York Court of Appeals.  Thank you for taking part in this important ceremony.  It’s an honor to join you in commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s landmark decision in Gideon v. Wainwright.

Today’s observance marks a unique opportunity to remind professionals from across our nation’s legal community about the sacred responsibilities that every one of us shares.  It provides a chance to call attention to the needs that we all must fulfill – and the challenges that prosecutors, public defenders, and policymakers throughout the country are called to address.  And it’s an important moment not merely to reflect on our past, but to plan for the future – and recommit ourselves to the ideals laid out in Justice Hugo Black’s historic opinion.

Fifty years ago this Monday – writing for a unanimous Supreme Court – Justice Black observed that:  it “seems to us to be an obvious truth” that “in our adversary system, any person haled into court, who is too poor to hire a lawyer, cannot be assured of a fair trial unless counsel is provided to him.”  This constituted a watershed moment – and a critical step forward – in our nation’s enduring pursuit of equal justice for all.

By holding that every defendant charged with a serious crime has the right to an attorney – even if he or she cannot afford one – the Court recognized the significance of legal assistance in safeguarding due process.  It furthered the aspirations of countless lawyers and activists who, throughout history, have stood up – and spoken out – for the common humanity and basic rights of every citizen.  And it paved the way for the expansion of the right to counsel in the years that followed.

Yet the journey that led to this momentous decision began quite humbly – with an act as simple as it was profoundly optimistic.  In 1961, a poor drifter named Clarence Earl Gideon was arrested in Florida on charges of theft.  He was forced to conduct his own defense, after his request for a court-appointed attorney was denied.  After a jury found him guilty – and even after his petition to the Florida Supreme Court was turned away – he remained undeterred.  He drafted another petition – in pencil, on prison stationery.  And he addressed it to the United States Supreme Court.

In this extraordinary document – which is on display for this event here at the Department, just a short distance from my office on the fifth floor – Clarence Earl Gideon appealed to the principles of fairness and equality that have always defined our justice system and stood at the core of our identity as a nation.  In five handwritten pages, he laid out a straightforward argument that would – in the words of my predecessor, Attorney General Robert Kennedy – change “the whole course of legal history . . . .”

As Gideon would go on to write in a reply brief:  “It makes no difference how old I am or what color I am or what church I belong too if any.  The question is I did not get a fair trial.  The question is very simple.  I requested the court to appoint me [an] attorney and the court refused.”

In June of 1962, the Supreme Court granted Gideon’s petition – and selected a prominent Washington lawyer to lead the team representing him.  We’re honored to have one of the members of this team, Abe Krash, here with us today – and I’d like to invite him to stand so we can give him a round of applause. 

Meanwhile, the Florida Attorney General’s office began reaching out to its 49 counterparts – asking for their support as it prepared to argue the other side of the case.  But this strategy backfired when Minnesota’s Attorney General – a young man named Walter Mondale, who was only a few years out of law school – strongly disagreed with Florida’s position.

Thanks largely to then-Attorney General Mondale’s advocacy – a total of 22 states signed on to an amicus brief in support of Clarence Earl Gideon.  Only two submitted a brief supporting Florida.  And on March 18, 1963 – when the Supreme Court unanimously held that Gideon’s right to due process had been violated – the foundation of America’s legal system was forever altered.

Of course, the progress heralded by the Court’s opinion – and the sweeping changes it demanded from coast to coast – would not happen overnight.  And they could never be handed down from the bench.  In many ways, this decision would have to be put into action by the American people – and their state and local leaders.

In the decades since this remarkable case – and Gideon’s retrial, at which he was found not guilty – public defender systems have been established in some states and strengthened in others.  Additional court actions have expanded the right to counsel in juvenile and certain misdemeanor cases.  And our nation has made significant strides in fulfilling the promise of Gideon – and ensuring quality representation for more of those who need it.

Yet, despite half a century of progress – even today, in 2013, far too many Americans struggle to gain access to the legal assistance they need.  And far too many children and adults routinely enter our juvenile and criminal justice systems with little understanding of the rights to which they’re entitled, the charges against them, or the potential sentences they may face.

In short, America’s indigent defense systems exist in a state of crisis.  Like many of you, this is something I’ve seen firsthand.  As a judge on the District of Columbia Superior Court – and, later, as United States Attorney for the District of Columbia – I frequently witnessed the devastating consequences of inadequate representation.  I saw that wrongful convictions and unjust sentences carry a moral cost that’s impossible to measure – and undermine the strength, integrity, and public trust in our legal system.  I also recognize that, in purely economic terms, they drain precious taxpayer resources – and constitute an outrageous waste of court funds on new filings, retrials, and appeals just because the system failed to get it right the first time.

Today – together – it’s time to declare, once again, that this is unacceptable – and unworthy of a legal system that stands as an example for all the world.  It’s time to reclaim Gideon’s petition – and resolve to confront the obstacles facing indigent defense providers.  Most of all, it’s time to speak out – with one voice – to rally our peers and partners at every level of government and the private sector to this important cause.

I’m proud to say that today’s Justice Department is rising to this challenge.  And we’re responding to this call not with despair, but with dedication – and a plan for action.  Alongside allies like the American Bar Association – which developed the landmark Ten Principles of a Public Defense Delivery System – my colleagues and I are fighting to institute the policies we need to improve representation for the disadvantaged.  And we’re engaging with leaders like the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, the National Legal Aid & Defender Association, state government officials, nonprofits, NGOs, and many others to drive this work into the future.

At the center of our efforts is the Department’s Access to Justice Initiative – a new component I launched in 2010 to help ensure that basic legal services are available, affordable, and accessible to everyone in this country – regardless of status or income.  Under the past leadership of the incomparable Professor Larry Tribe and Mark Childress – and, today, thanks to the hard work of Acting Senior Counselor Deborah Leff and her staff – the Access to Justice Initiative is collaborating with a wide range of partners to broaden access to quality representation, highlight best practices, and bring new allies into this work.

In addition, through the Office of Justice Programs and other components, the Department is developing concrete steps to help us better understand and address indigent defense issues.  Last year, in New Orleans, I unveiled a grant program known as “Answering Gideon’s Call,” through which the Bureau of Justice Assistance awarded $1.2 million in funding to four states – each of which has partnered with a research organization to track outcomes.  Under another initiative funded by the National Institute of Justice – and totaling $1.6 million – we’re supporting research projects examining “holistic defense” approaches, studying factors that lead juveniles to waive their right to counsel, and evaluating the challenges of representing indigent defendants with mental health disorders.

Beyond this, we’re striving to bring stakeholders together – including law enforcement, court officials, prosecutors, indigent defense providers, and correctional officers – to refine existing programs such as Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grants.  We are developing a national-level “Census of Public Defender Offices” to provide a snapshot of the efforts that are underway across America, determine what works, and assess training and resource needs.  For the first time ever, we’re helping to offer free training sessions to jurists and other legal professionals who serve Indian Country.  We’re working with the ABA to examine – and potentially mitigate – the collateral consequences that often accompany certain convictions.  And we’re using the Department’s enforcement authorities in targeted ways to prompt defense system reform.

These and other initiatives are proof of the Justice Department’s steadfast commitment to protecting the rights and interests of the most vulnerable among us.  There can be no question that this work shows tremendous promise – and we can all be proud of the efforts that so many of you are helping to lead.  Yet there’s also no denying that much remains to be done.

Fortunately, all of this is only the beginning.  And today, I’m pleased to announce that the Justice Department will soon offer $1.8 million in new resources and tools to fulfill the rights guaranteed by Gideon; to provide assistance to the jurisdictions that need it most; and to bolster national efforts to build effective public defense systems across America.

Through a second “Answering Gideon’s Call” grant initiative – focused on improving the effectiveness of right-to-counsel services – BJA will soon award over $700,000 to a non-profit organization and its partners to support training and technical assistance based on the ABA’s Ten Principles.  They will also re-evaluate qualified applications for last year’s grants under this program, and will offer more than a quarter million dollars – each – to two past applicants.

In addition, the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention will provide $400,000 to fund a project improving the level of systemic advocacy, the quality of representation for indigent juveniles, and the kinds of support available to the juvenile indigent defense bar.  The National Training and Technical Assistance Center will commit a total of $90,000 for technical assistance to help several states meet their constitutional obligations to provide competent representation for the poor.  And BJA will provide $50,000 to implement the “Measures for Justice” initiative in Milwaukee – a rigorous evaluation tool that will help illuminate strategies for success and empower criminal justice stakeholders to make the changes they need.

Of course, all of this assistance – and support for cutting-edge research – is dependent on funding that’s made available by Congress.  And in 2013, our funding is impacted by the “sequester” – which cut over $1.6 billion from the Justice Department’s budget, including $100 million from essential grant programs like the ones I’ve just announced.

Put simply, this Department cannot afford to lose such a significant portion of its budget – particularly in a time of uncommon challenges, when many legal assistance organizations are facing shortfalls, and state and local officials have been asked to do more with less.  That’s why it’s imperative that Congressional leaders quickly adopt a balanced deficit reduction plan to stop these untenable cuts.  And it’s also why – today, more than ever before – prosecutors and defenders must come together to make the most of limited resources.

As we look toward the future, we all must collaborate to improve our justice system.  Since becoming Attorney General four years ago, I’ve urged my colleagues to step up and do just that.  And I’m pleased that the dedicated men and women of the United States Attorney community have taken this to heart – and many are working closely with the defense bar in a variety of contexts.

For instance, in Nebraska – and in the Southern District of Iowa – our U.S. Attorneys regularly meet with federal public defenders to discuss areas of mutual concern.  In the Eastern District of Michigan, federal prosecutors are partnering with the Federal Defender’s Office to hold public events – and plan additional forums for discussion about pretrial services and other issues with the defense bar.

Here in Washington, Justice Department leaders have worked with Federal Public Defenders – and counsel appointed under the Criminal Justice Act – to develop best practices for dealing with electronically stored information, or ESI, during the discovery process.  And we’ve begun preliminary discussions about conducting a joint training session right here in the Great Hall – so prosecutors can learn alongside public defenders and CJA counsel from across the United States.

In the end, this may be the single most important legacy of Gideon:  that it serves as a reminder of the obligation entrusted to every legal professional – not merely to serve clients or win cases, but to do justice.  It stands as a testament to the fact that the structures and mechanisms of our legal system, far from being etched in stone, remain works in progress.  And it’s a powerful example of how – in this great country – even the humblest hands can help to bend the arc of history just a little further toward justice.

Although Clarence Earl Gideon did not live to see even the tenth anniversary of this pivotal decision, his story – and his indelible, handwritten words – remind us that we cannot rest in our efforts to see that justice is done.  And we must never stop fighting to realize the principle that we have come to know by his name – by guaranteeing that every person in this country can access quality legal representation any time they come before the criminal justice system.

Colleagues, this is our solemn responsibility – and our moral calling.  And as I look over this crowd today, and reflect on how far we’ve come in the last 50 years – despite the challenges of the hour and the obstacles ahead – I can’t help but feel confident in where our indigent defense efforts will lead us over the next 50.

So let us seize this moment – and take advantage of this opportunity – to act with optimism, and without delay; to stay true to the values that have always guided our steps forward; and to stand up for the ideals that must always drive our ongoing pursuit of a more free, more just, and more perfect Union.

Thank you.

Fifty Years Later: The Legacy of Gideon v. Wainwright

Updated August 18, 2015