Top federal attorneys commemorate golden anniversary of historic right to counsel case
March 18 marks the 50th anniversary of Gideon v. Wainwright, the landmark Supreme Court decision which held that every citizen charged with a serious offense has the right to an attorney at state expense if he or she cannot afford one. In Gideon, the Court for the first time declared it to be “an obvious truth…that in our adversary system of criminal justice, any person haled into court, who is too poor to hire a lawyer, cannot be assured a fair trial unless counsel is provided to him.”
Attorneys in the U.S. Attorney’s Office and the Federal Public Defender’s Office routinely appear in criminal cases here in the Western District of New York. Although often adversaries, today, as the head of our respective offices, we write to express our wholehearted agreement with the Court’s decision in Gideon and celebrate the profound importance of this decision. For over two hundred years, our Constitution’s Sixth Amendment has guaranteed the right to assistance of counsel in a criminal case. Yet, it was not until 1963, that text was read to require the State to pay for an attorney for those who could not afford one. In Gideon, the Supreme Court recognized that the very integrity of our criminal justice system, and the public’s continuing faith in it, depends on effective representation for both the prosecution and defense.
Aside from being morally untenable, a deprivation of the right to the effective assistance of counsel is economically unsustainable. Every taxpayer should be seriously concerned about the systemic costs of inadequate defense for the poor. When the justice system fails to get it right the first time, we all pay, often for years, for new filings, retrials, and appeals. The cost of a wrongful conviction on the accused, his family and the integrity of our system of justice is immeasurable.
And let us also not forget that our country was founded on the notion that all persons possess unalienable, fundamental rights, including life and liberty. For our criminal justice system to truly ensure that “all are equal before the law,” any failure to safeguard those rights when a person is charged with a crime is an affront not only to the accused but to all of us as Americans.
So on March 18, join us in celebrating the Constitutional right of all citizens to the assistance of counsel and the recognition in Gideon, “that this noble ideal cannot be realized if the poor man charged with crime has to face his accusers without a lawyer to assist him.” As the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. once stated, "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere." While we often, indeed usually, take opposing positions as litigants in court, one belief that we share is that the Gideon decision advanced justice not only for criminal defendants but for all Americans.
ABOUT THE AUTHORS:
Marianne Mariano is the Federal Public Defender for the Western District of New York. Attorneys in her Office and private attorneys willing to accept court assignments under the Criminal Justice Act, represent the indigent citizens accused of federal crimes in the seventeen westernmost county in New York.
William J. Hochul, Jr. is the United States Attorney for the Western District of New York. He is the chief Federal Law Enforcement Officer for seventeen counties, and is responsible for overseeing the prosecution of all federal criminal offenses in this area. The Office also represents the United States in all civil matters in which the United States is a party.