“Gideon is not a promise, it is a constitutional right.” 

Stephen Bright, President and Senior Counsel

Southern Center for Human Rights

The Marshall Project is asking President Obama questions about criminal justice reform this week.  I have a question for the President and I encourage all of you to submit your own questions as well.  But before I ask my question I want to relate another recent event that bears upon why I have worded it the way I have. 

On October 5, 2015, Stephen Bright, came to Ohio and gave an inspiring talk to the staff of the Office of the Ohio Public Defender.  During what will be an unforgettable event for our entire office, he said: “Gideon is not a promise, it is a constitutional right.” And maybe that is obvious but it struck me how the simple nuance of words can make a difference in how people approach topics. 

For years the public defense community has talked about Gideon’s promise.  We have lamented that the promise remains unfulfilled.  On the 50th anniversary we celebrated the right to counsel and grieved that the promise was still so far away.  So far away that on the very day of the 50th anniversary of Gideon, Justice Kagan, in a very depressing analogy, compared legal representation of the poor to different kinds of cars . . . and opined that, as a society, we should not be shooting for excellent representation like a Cadillac, but we should be shooting for representation that is equivalent to the Ford Taurus.  How depressing is that?  A Justice of the United States Supreme Court stating that we are not up to the standard of a Ford Taurus and, even worse, she believes that this is all that Gideon’s promise holds – run of the mill representation.

But like most promises this one, at best, is filled with good intentions but so easily broken.  And promises are only as strong as the person who gives them . . . and right now there is no one making promises about Gideon.  There is only a monolithic, faceless government that has no accountability towards the poor and disenfranchised.  But this talk of promises is where we go wrong.  Rights are not promises, well-intended but ultimately no more than words.  Rights are the bedrock of our society.  Breaking them risks our culture and our moral stand.  Gideon is a fundamental right.  It is not a promise to be broken.

So, my question for President Obama is this: Will you, as the head of our government, commit to the constitutional right to counsel, not the promise, but the fundamental right, that has been violated for so many years, by demanding substantial increases in state and federal funding for public defense across this nation and holding the states and the Department of Justice accountable for ongoing failures?

Let the Marshall Project know your question at this page. #‎CriminalJusticeReform‬