Justice News

Attorney General Merrick B. Garland Delivers Remarks at The National Legal Aid & Defender Association’s Gideon@60 Commemoration
Washington, DC
United States
Thursday, March 16, 2023

Remarks as Delivered

Good afternoon.

We are here today because this weekend marks 60 years since Gideon v. Wainwright held that “any person haled into court, who is too poor to hire a lawyer, cannot be assured a fair trial unless counsel is provided for him.”

Just to describe the experience of Clarence Earl Gideon before his case reached the Supreme Court is to recall how different the American justice system was before that decision.

Gideon was charged with breaking and entering a pool hall. Without funds, and with only an eighth-grade education, he asked the trial judge to appoint counsel for him. When his request was denied, Gideon endeavored to defend himself.

As Justice Black’s opinion for the Court recounted, Gideon “conducted his defense about as well as could be expected from a layperson. He made an opening statement to the jury, cross-examined the State’s witnesses, . . . and made a short [closing] argument.” The jury soon returned a guilty verdict, and Gideon was sentenced to five years in state prison.

After the Supreme Court reversed the judgment, however, the case was retried. This time, represented by a local counsel, Gideon was acquitted.

At every stage of my career – as a criminal defense attorney, prosecutor, judge, and now our [nation's] chief law enforcement officer – I have seen the truth of what Justice Black wrote in Gideon: “Lawyers in criminal courts are necessities, not luxuries.”

Without capable criminal defense attorneys, defendants cannot understand the scope of their rights at each stage of the criminal process. 

Prosecutors cannot learn of errors in their factual assumptions or legal analyses that could point them in the direction of different resolutions. 

Jurors cannot hear the full stories needed to fairly adjudicate cases. 

And judges cannot hear the full legal arguments needed to guide their decisions.

Criminal defense attorneys put the government’s case to the test. In so doing, they make sure that every part of our system fairer, more equal, and more just. 

But the Gideon case did more than just help ensure justice in individual cases. 

With its decision in Gideon, the Supreme Court transformed the American legal system by renewing the foundational promise of equal justice under law. 

It reaffirmed that the law protects all of us – the poor as well as the rich, the powerless as well as the powerful. 

In so doing, it reaffirmed the nation’s commitment to the Rule of Law. 

And trust in the Rule of Law is what keeps American democracy together. 

That trust requires not only that justice be done, but that it be seen to be done. And only the presence of counsel zealously defending their clients’ rights can ensure public confidence in the legitimacy of judicial proceedings, regardless of their outcome.

There is still so much more work to be done to make the promise of Gideon real. 

That work demands enormous effort from the legal community. Most of all, it makes enormous demands on those lawyers – like many in this room – who serve as public defenders, Criminal Justice Act attorneys, pro bono lawyers, and appointed counsels of every kind. 

Our justice system today would be no different than it was before Gideon if tens of thousands of lawyers had not stood up – and continued to stand up – to take on the calling of public defense. Your work is essential not only to your clients, but to the functioning of our judicial system.

I know that our justice system does not treat you accordingly.

However much we at the Justice Department complain – and rightly so – about our limited resources, I know full well that yours are far more limited.

I know that public defense remains drastically underfunded. I know that public defender offices are experiencing serious recruitment and retention problems that only worsened during the COVID-19 pandemic.

I know that you often carry staggering caseloads and that your staff and investigative resources are insufficient – to say nothing of your financial compensation. I also know that the pressure on criminal defense attorneys is enormous – there are no small cases when someone’s liberty is on the line.

The Justice Department recognizes the urgency and seriousness of these challenges. We are committed to doing all we can to support our colleagues who have devoted their careers to public defense.

One year after Gideon, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy announced the creation of an Office of Criminal Justice within the Justice Department, focused on the provision of counsel to the poor. In doing so, he said: “It must be our purpose in government … to insure that the department over which I preside is more than a Department of Prosecution and is in fact the Department of Justice.”

It is with that same conviction that I announced the restoration of a standalone Office for Access to Justice within the Department in 2021. And it is why I asked Rachel Rossi, a former public defender, to lead it.

Our Office for Access to Justice is working closely with those of you on the front lines to identify and address the most urgent criminal and civil legal needs of communities across America.

Over the past few weeks, Department officials have crisscrossed the country to hear from public defense leaders on the ground.

Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco launched the Department’s nationwide tour in Miami, where she met with leaders of the federal and state public defender offices and defense advocates. She also announced a 100-day comprehensive review to ensure consistent, timely access to counsel in Bureau of Prisons pretrial facilities.

Staff of the Office for Access to Justice went to Tulsa to meet with representatives of an organization dedicated to serving mothers in the justice system with a holistic defense model, which not only represents their clients’ interests in court, but also addresses the underlying challenges in their lives outside of the criminal justice system.

Department attorneys and staff traveled to the Muscogee (Creek) Nation to meet with Tribal leaders and defenders to discuss public defense challenges specific to Tribal communities.

Director Rossi and Amy Solomon, the Department’s Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General for the Office of Justice Programs, traveled to Nashville. There, they highlighted a public defense program that is receiving Byrne JAG funding from its State Administrating Agency. They made clear that states can use Byrne JAG funding from the Justice Department to support public defense services. 

Assistant Attorney General for the Criminal Division Kenneth Polite joined Director Rossi in Las [Vegas] to discuss the Department’s efforts to encourage law students to consider public defense as a profession.

And this week, Associate Attorney General Vanita Gupta traveled to Des Moines, where she announced that the Department will be establishing a new position within the Office for Access to Justice dedicated to supporting state and local public defense. 

We know this is only a start. We know that much more is required.

Like the Attorneys General who came before me, I begin every day by walking through a rotunda just outside my office, where these words are inscribed: “The United States wins its point whenever justice is done its citizens in the courts.” The message of course, is that this is true regardless of whether the outcome favors the government.

This is what distinguishes our justice system from those of many other countries. And this is what distinguishes our Justice Department from the law enforcement agencies of many other countries.

We are responsible not only for enforcing the law, but for upholding the Rule of Law. We are responsible for protecting civil rights and pursuing justice for all Americans. 

And justice demands more than good prosecutors and good judges. It demands meaningful access to counsel for the accused, including those who cannot afford to hire attorneys.

To provide that access, and to reaffirm the kind of faith in law upon which our democracy depends, public defender offices need more resources.  

Our nation needs more lawyers to answer the call of public service by providing criminal defense for those who cannot afford it.

And as a legal community, we need to recognize and reaffirm the necessity and the nobility of the public defense profession.

When I was a law student, one of my mentors was John Hart Ely. Although he was recognized as one of the foremost legal scholars in the country, Ely emphasized that the thing he was most proud of was the work he did on the Gideon brief when he was a summer associate at Arnold, Fortas & Porter in 1962.

No doubt that influenced my own subsequent decision to join the same law firm.

The firm’s then-senior partner when I joined was Abe Krash, who had supervised Ely and worked with Abe Fortas on the Gideon argument. Krash never failed to emphasize to every new lawyer that Clarence Earl Gideon was the most important client the firm had ever represented.

Ely and Krash knew that the integrity of the American justice system depends on effective representation for indigent defendants.

They knew that there are few things more meaningful and more honorable than applying one’s talent, experience, and education to representing another person before the state – no matter what that person is accused of having done.

They knew that the impact of Gideon would be felt for generations.

And they knew that fulfilling the promise of Gideon would require each generation of our country’s lawyers to take up its important cause.

The Justice Department is proud to stand with the public defenders and criminal defense attorneys in this room and across the country who are doing just that. 

Thank you for everything you do.

Updated March 16, 2023