Why We Celebrate Gideon Day
You should know the story of Clarence Earl Gideon.
In 1961, someone stole jukebox money from a Florida pool hall. The lone eyewitness identified Clarence Earl Gideon, who was arrested and charged with a felony.
Uneducated in criminal law, criminal procedure, or the rules of evidence, Gideon was nonetheless denied counsel. He was convicted and sent to prison.
In his cell, Gideon handwrote a petition for writ of certiorari. The United States Supreme Court granted cert and appointed future Supreme Court Justice Abe Fortas as appellate counsel. Gideon won.
Writing for the Court, Justice Hugo Black noted that “lawyers in criminal courts are necessities, not luxuries.” Gideon v. Wainwright, 372 U.S. 335, 344 (1963). The Court reiterated that “[t]he right to be heard would be, in many cases, of little avail if it did not comprehend the right to be heard by counsel.” Id. Gideon’s case was reversed and remanded.
Back in Florida, counsel by his side, Gideon was retried. Verdict: not guilty.
Gideon’s story is a triumph. He fought for his right to be heard by counsel and won. He was set free.
And so were many others. Gideon v. Wainwright was a watershed moment for criminal law. While we American public defenders trace our roots back much further (you should also know the stories of John Adams and Clara Shortridge Foltz), modern public defense really starts with Gideon and its progeny, Douglas, Gault, and Argersinger. Countless persons have had counsel by their side because of Gideon.
But the triumph of Gideon was not absolute. Public defense in Gideon’s wake was spotty. Some states created statewide public defender offices. Others local PDs. Still others relied on private assigned counsel. (Indeed, half of our 3,000|PLUS| American counties still rely exclusively on private assigned counsel.) This national patchwork has not served us or our clients well.
Thus, in 2013, on the 50th Anniversary of Gideon v. Wainwright, 40 American public defense leaders gathered in Dayton, Ohio. They wanted to create the nation’s first organization devoted solely to public defense. An organization of lawyers and litigators. Of social workers and mitigations specialists. Of investigators and paralegals. The voice of American public defense: NAPD.
This work is tough. But you will never be alone. With over 30,000 members, NAPD is the place for you to learn, share, and ask questions about public defense. It’s the community that will help you become the best professional you can be.
You—lawyer, social worker, paralegal, investigator, or core staff—safeguard liberty. Just as Gideon’s fate turned on his attorney’s knowledge and skills, your clients’ fates turn on yours.
So you’d better be good.
If you’re just starting off, NAPD can help get you up to speed. If you’re good, NAPD can help you become great. If you’re transitioning to leadership, NAPD can help out there, too. No matter your focus, NAPD has trainings, groups, and resources for you.
It takes tens of thousands of us, working together, to bring Gideon to life. Clarence Earl Gideon’s story is your story. Embrace it. Our clients’ liberties hang in the balance.
Geoff Burkhart is the Executive Director of the Trexas Indigent Defense Commission and President of the NAPD Board of Directors.