Gideon v. Wainwright, Fifty Years Later

Fifty years ago, the United States Supreme Court ruled in the landmark case, Gideon v. Wainwright, the right to a lawyer is fundamental, essential to a fair trial and cannot be denied. Moreover, the right means everyone is entitled to effective representation. The Orleans Public Defenders Office (OPD) strives each day to provide our clients zealous legal representation, breathing life into this constitutional guarantee.

It is hard to believe that within many of our lifetimes, legal representation was not a guarantee. This guarantee is often taken for granted today. Should we? Has the promise of full access to counsel, to justice really been fulfilled?


Certainly we have made great strides recently here in Louisiana with the passage of the Public Defender Act in 2007. However, we still have many miles to go before laying claim to a fair and balanced criminal justice system.

At the heart of this unfulfilled promise is a systemic lack of funding for public defense. Too often, public defense is the first slash during budget cutbacks; it hurts poor people and jeopardizes justice and our faith in the criminal justice system. Indeed, Justice Black, author of the Gideon decision, wrote in 1964, "There can be no equal justice where the kind of trial a man gets depends on the amount of money he has."

Budget shortfalls harm the ability of public defender office's to provide constitutional and effective representation. To the point, public defender offices across Louisiana are overburdened and lack sufficient resources, victims of an archaic system of funding – unstable, unreliable and unpredictable. Several offices are implementing service restrictions, including OPD. Our office handled over 25,000 cases last year, a staggering number for an office with less than half the funding of the District Attorney and just 6% of the funding appropriated to the New Orleans Police Department.

U.S. Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. said last year that across the country, "public defender offices and other indigent defense providers are underfunded and understaffed. Too often, when legal representation is available to the poor, it's rendered less effective by insufficient resources, overwhelming caseloads and inadequate oversight."

Justice can only be served if every person – rich or poor – has the effective assistance of counsel and can face his or her accuser equally in a court of law. That was the ideal Gideon promised. Public Defenders fight every day to fulfill that promise, but until that ideal written 50 years ago is met fully, justice remains in jeopardy and our whole system – our whole society – suffers.

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