Category Archives: pd system

Gideon at 50: A time for truth


Calm down, the talky part of the day is over. Miranda (the original one) recommended I set up some polls to get to the truth of the matter. So here, I present 3 polls to you. Votes are anonymous. I don’t care who you are. This is informational only. Participate, feel like a community, make fun of others, I don’t care.

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Raison d’être

I could quote, as I have done before, Ammianus Marcellinus and his tale of Delphidius and Caesar. I could quote Martin Luther King, Jr., and his admonition that injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. I could even quote my namesake, but I’ve already written about him once today. Instead, I quote Jonathan Rapping, former training director of Public Defender Services and current something of Gideon’s Promise, a program dedicated to training and resurrecting crumbling public defender offices in the South.

Expectations for what poor people deserve have fallen so low that people in the system have come to accept these low standards. They have lost sight of justice and the role they are supposed to play in promoting it.

While limiting caseloads is certainly one part of the solution, if we expect to change America’s public defense system, we must change its culture. We must teach public defenders to resist the low expectations of a broken system. And we must prepare the next generation of public defenders to improve those systems.

Perhaps being fortunate to practice in a public defender system that has most everything one could ask for* has blinded me to the obvious realities of practicing in other jurisdictions where we are barely funded at all.

But the charge that it is the dedication of the public defenders that needs examining that gives me pause. Is it, like I want to think, that those public defenders who have accepted the low expectations of the broken system are few and far between, or is it like Rapping teaches it: an infestation that has taken root in a discordant system in states where there is little or no attention paid to indigent defense?

Gideon at 50: A stolen promise and the search for a soul



Clarence Earl Gideon, of Florida by way of many state’s penitentiary systems, was a thief. He was a rather poor one too. Gideon, whose name I have adopted and which I shroud myself in on a daily basis, was also a dreamer. And like most dreamers, he was also a fool. A thief, a dreamer and a fool, and in the end, he and his legacy have done us all in.

50 years ago today, Clarence Earl Gideon the man, the thief, was vindicated. Writing for an unanimous Supreme Court, Justice Black opined that

reason and reflection require us to recognize 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 for him. This seems to us to be an obvious truth.

Obvious in principle, obvious in necessity but hardly obvious in execution. Clarence himself bought into the lofty ideal idealized in his namesake decision, going so far as to put some grandiose on his tombstone:

And yet, somehow, here we are. There is no joyous celebration of the 50th anniversary. There are no pats on the back or accolades, let alone a sense of satisfaction of a job well done.

There is only a moment of attention that has drawn the pleas for help out into the open, as the world, for this instant and only this instant, has muted every other noise to pay perfunctory obeisance at the altar of indigent defense, because it is the right thing to do. So in these few fleeting moments, take note of the near-universal message of “dear God please help us we are drowning”.

In this moment, I am reminded of another favorite quote of mine:

In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to … have the Assistance of Counsel for his defence.

While the meaning of the phrase “shall enjoy the right” may have been up for debate prior to Gideon v. Wainwright, that decision left little room for its continuation. What the Constitution (and by extension Gideon) did not provide is the will to enforce that right.

That will comes entirely from the people. And the people for about 49 years now, haven’t given a shit.

Oh, don’t get me wrong. The people – you – care very deeply about the criminal justice system. The people – you – have very strong senses of right and wrong. The people – you – have very strong opinions about what should be a crime and how swiftly, quickly and severely that crime should be punished. This hasn’t changed. Just remember Justice Black:

Governments, both state and federal, quite properly spend vast sums of money to establish machinery to try defendants accused of crime. Lawyers to prosecute are everywhere deemed essential to protect the public’s interest in an orderly society.

Law & Order, DAs, cops, FBI agents, rogue cops, the triumph of good over evil are staples of our modern imagination. They are woven into the fabric of our existence and color the lens through which we view the world.

Every person arrested is guilty and those that are not are rare exceptions that don’t alter the perception of the system. We don’t care if the people who get arrested get good defenses; we assume they’re guilty. What we really need to do is pay the people who catch criminals. And prosecute them. And guard them. The guys who defend them? Scumbags. Criminals themselves. Government fatcats.

It’s not so much a funding problem (it is that too) as it is an attitude problem. The funding drought is merely a symptom of the greater issue with indigent defense: no one gives a shit.

The right of one charged with crime to counsel may not be deemed fundamental and essential to fair trials in some countries, but it is in ours. From the very beginning, our state and national constitutions and laws have laid great emphasis on procedural and substantive safeguards designed to assure fair trials before impartial tribunals in which every defendant stands equal before the law. This noble ideal cannot be realized if the poor man charged with crime has to face his accusers without a lawyer to assist him.

How many reading this today would agree that it continues to be true? Maybe it did when Justice Black wrote it in 1963. But I don’t know. I wasn’t conscious then.

Do these principles still matter in a Honey Boo Boo world? Are we still obsessed with being the best in the world at everything? The most noble? Is that even on the radar?


Imagine, if you will, a world without a public defender. What would this world look like? Do you know that in Connecticut [PDF], we handle over 80% of the criminal cases every year? That means approximately 81, 500 cases last year were handled by public defenders.

Yes, that’s 81, 500. In one year. I think the public defender system in Connecticut employed 214 attorneys in the last fiscal year. Any time you get arrested and face jail time, we represent you. Doesn’t matter if it’s because you shoved your girlfriend in a fit of rage or because you broke into a house and murdered the occupants because they interrupted you while you tried to steal their PS4.

Eighty-one thousand. In one year. And that’s in Connecticut, one of the smallest states.

We’re like your neighborhood mechanic who works on your car for free, whether it’s an oil change or a transmission.

But there are 81, 500 cars and only 214 mechanics. We need more mechanics.


The avalanche of cases and politics come together to present a formidable obstacle to alleviating some of the problems that afflict the system in some states. Politicians do not like asking voters for money for indigent defense.

“Arguing for more money to defend criminals is not the easiest way to win a close election,” said former Vice President Walter Mondale. As Minnesota’s attorney general in the early 1960s, Mondale recruited 21 other states to join in a brief urging the court to rule as it did and rejected a plea from Florida to support limits on states’ responsibilities to poor defendants.

Why is that so? Who is to blame? It is the height of cheek for politicians to say that seeking funding for criminals is an untenable platform when they themselves have made it so. ‘Tough on crime’ was a political policy, not an intrinsic way of life. Politicians have made careers on ruining lives of those arrested and now lament the lack of popular will to fix the broken system.

Or is it our fault for letting them? How many times have you said: “why don’t they just find them guilty already and sentence them?” How many times have you disrespected the Constitution?

And what will happen when it is you, facing a judge, standing next to a public defender with 25 files in his hand? Or your son? Or your grandfather?


Funding indigent defense isn’t funding criminals. Funding indigent defense isn’t paying incompetent lawyers to do nothing. It’s funding something far more important. It’s funding the protection of the Constitution.

Do you know what happens every day in the criminal justice system? The law is followed, changed or challenged. And that happens in the brightly lit, heavily populated courtrooms on which no light is shined. Public defenders (and other defense attorneys) are playing a long, complicated chess game with the government. At stake: your individual freedoms.

Tomorrow, when you wake up and wonder why there needs to be a debate about whether the President has the authority to order drone strikes to kill American citizens on American soil without due process, it’s because every incremental battle leading up to that preposterous proposition has been lost. Tomorrow when you get pulled over and the cop looks through your cell phone or pulls you out of your car and frisks you or lies to you and gets you to admit that you committed a crime that you didn’t, realize that those battles have been fought and lost.

These battles aren’t won or lost in cases of innocent people. Name every single case that you might know. They were all guilty. Ernesto Miranda? Guilty. Clarence Gideon? A criminal. Michael Crawford? Stabbed a dude. Ferdinand Oquendo? Killed a dude.

And it may be that those battles were well fought and would’ve been lost anyway. But you’d have known about them, if you paid attention. And maybe you’d have cared and demand differently of your legislators and lawmakers and governors who appoint judges who make these decisions.

Because, whether you realize it or not, you have entrusted your rights to me. I am their guardian. My black-or-Hispanic-lives-in-a-shitty-neighborhood-has-a-criminal-record-was-probably-robbing-a-bank-client’s Fourth Amendment rights are the same yours. Or rather, your rights are the same as his. If you want the government to truncate his rights because you judge him as “the other”, then realize that you’re giving the government full license to truncate your rights too. Don’t worry, I’ll fight just as hard when you’re standing next to me, but it might be too late then.

So decide today, America. What is more important to you: liberty, freedom and justice or just the idea of it?

I’ll be here either way.

Video via.


Other reading (will try to update continually through the day):

Image of Clarence Earl Gideon’s tombstone credit Diane L. Wilson/Associated Press taken from this NYT article.

Preparing for Gideon Day

You may or may not have been aware that my birthday is coming up on Monday, March 18, 2013. I will turn 50 on that day. I am ramping up my celebration efforts in advance of Monday, most of which include putting bandages on myself and drinking copious amounts of alcohol to deal with the pain, which then leads to further injuries and more alcohol and on.

So, if you wish to pay tribute to Gideon Day, write a short essay, not exceeding 1000 words and post it on your blog. Then send me the link and on Gideon Day I will admonish you to hug a public defender (any public defender, not ‘a public defender’) and then I will compile the links into a Gideon Appreciation Day post where your appreciation can be appreciated.

Get on with it.

3.5 appointments a day

In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right […] to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defence.

It’s sad that in the 50th Anniversary year of Gideon v. Wainwright, we still do no more than pay lip service to one of the most important rights bestowed upon the people (it’s included in The Bill of Rights for a reason). It’s sad that the system has remained so overburdened that it is nothing more than an assembly line that must be kept moving at all costs. And if that cost is the rights of the defendants, so be it. Because in order for any criminal justice system to function, there must be turnover, because there is always volume. And you don’t get turnover if you don’t have attorneys who can “move” cases: plead ’em out, convince clients to take deals, sell what the prosecutor is selling. To do anything else would be to tax the system and those who tax the system get punished.

So the system seeks out those who are compliant and rewards them. Rewards them to the tune of 3.5 cases for every business day in the calendar year. Rewards them for being one of the boys by assigning a fuckton of cases to them: 920 in the whole year.

Think about that for a second: 920 individuals are represented by one lawyer in one year. That means if he (and Geraldo Acosta of Harris County, Texas is a he) started 2013 with no clients, today he’d have 98 of them. 98 individuals relying on him for their liberty. 98 individuals relying on him to further their best interests.

What do you think happens? Do you think he manages 920 cases a year by rigorously investigating and defending each one? Do you think he spends every waking moment doing everything that is reasonably necessary for each client? Do you think he can?

And why does he get 920 cases a year? Because he’s so good? Or because he’s so good at moving them along?

Just for comparison’s sake, the “overburdened, overworked, underpaid, not a real lawyer” public defender in CT was assigned to an average of 462 cases last year  [PDF – Appendix Table 12] in the busy low courts. The highest per attorney appointment was 653: 267 cases short of Acosta by himself.

This is the state of your criminal justice system. This is the state of justice.

The joke’s on all of us

Our priorities have gone askew. Never has this been clearer to me than today, viewing from afar the circus surrounding an apparent once-in-a-decade event gathering steam: the utterance of words out loud by a Supreme Court Justice. Yes, he spoke. Yes, he said something incomprehensible. Yes, he and Scalia were making fun of Yale and Harvard. And that, apparently, is newsworthy. That, apparently, has been the impetus for hundreds of posts and BREAKING NEWS items and thousands of wasted pixels speculating exactly what he meant. Has the streak been broken, the L.A. Times – which I thought was a reputable newspaper, but apparently not – asks of its readers and also somewhat funnily has this sentence in the same article:

It’s a slow news day at the U.S. Supreme Court when the biggest story is whether an overheard, offhand comment by Justice Clarence Thomas means he has broken his nearly seven-year streak of silence.

It’s a slow news day if you don’t really care about the issue of the massive funding crisis that is threatening indigent defense across the country; it’s a slow news day if you’re too fucking stupid to realize that everyone’s due process rights are about to take it in a most impolite way if it’s okay for the State to hold someone for 5 years without giving them a trial. It’s a slow news day if writing about Justice Thomas uttering half a sentence at the Supreme Court is what you do when you’re waiting for Lindsay Lohan to fire another lawyer.

I’m amazed at the number of articles that keep popping up in my feed reader about Thomas and his words of wisdom. Hell, the New Yorker got into it to remind us that, in their opinion, Thomas really hates Yale. Liptak engages in a Zapruder film like frame-by-frame analysis of what this man might’ve uttered. I could go on and on with links, but you get the point.

You know what’s missing in every single one of these articles? A mention of Boyer. Who’s Boyer, you ask? Boyer, of Boyer v. Louisiana [SCOTUSBlog preview; oral argument transcript here]. Boyer, who sat in jail for 5 years facing the death penalty because the State could afford to only pay one of his lawyers – one that wasn’t qualified to represent him in a death penalty case. Boyer, in whose case witnesses died while he was waiting for the political football of indigent defense funding to stop getting punted around from endzone to endzone like it was a Browns vs. Cardinals game. Boyer, whose egregious delay the state of Louisiana seeks to shrug off as not really important and certainly not their fault.

The State of Louisiana which had the gall to argue before Justice Thomas and the rest of the Court that using funds to pay prosecutors to prosecute crimes but not defense lawyers to defend against those crimes is not a “deliberate choice”. It’s the same State that will argue that it’s the fault of the poor, jailed defendant with an 8th-grade education that he wasn’t tried for 5 years after arrest. It’s the same State that thinks it’s okay for him to proceed to defend a death penalty case with counsel who is ineffective.

You want a story? I’ll give you a story: this is the 50th anniversary of Gideon v. Wainwright. That the decision trumpeted the arrival of an era of equal justice for all, but that era has never materialized. That states still woefully underfund indigent defense; that access to justice isn’t equal and that people get screwed. Every. Single. Day. And it’s this Court – Thomas and others – who have the authority to change that, to alter that reality for hundreds of thousands of Americans. Today for all my clients; tomorrow, perhaps for you.

But no. Let’s continue to be cute and write funny stories about what an odd man that Justice Thomas is that he hasn’t asked a question in 6 years and well, was he making fun of Harvard or Yale? Because, really, who gives a fuck about Boyer, right? Stupid Constitution getting in the way, just like Thomas always said.


TL;DR: Thomas mumbles, internet creams itself, Boyer sits in jail, Gideon weeps.

[Update: Sorry, couldn’t resist this update. After my rant above, I stumbled across this stunningly bizarre, tone-deaf, self-important post by Tom Goldstein of SCOTUSBlog, who, apparently, chides the internet not for taking a serious issue and making light of it like I do, but almost the opposite: for taking the joke too seriously. That’s some fucking serious level of meta that even I haven’t been able to get to in all my years of internet trolling. Well played, TG, well played.]