Fifty years ago Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down the landmark ruling in Gideon v. Wainwright, which found that every criminal defendant was entitled to a lawyer.
Justice Hugo L. Black wrote for the court that it was an “obvious truth” that a fair trial for an indigent defendant could not be guaranteed without the assistance of counsel.
The “noble ideal” that every defendant “stands equal before the law … cannot be realized if the poor man charged with crime has to face his accusers without a lawyer to assist him.”
Fifty years later, the notion that everyone is equal before the law is still a noble ideal, but are we living up to it?
Maine has made great strides in recent years to better represent the indigent defendant. There is a commission that pays court-appointed lawyers, taking the job away from trial court judges.
But resources are still a major challenge. There is not enough money in this year’s budget to pay lawyers unless the governor can find emergency funds. They are paid $50 an hour, a rate set in 1990. The governor’s budget calls for an increase next year, but that is hardly a sure thing in the current atmosphere.
Criminal defense lawyers say they are still hearing from defendants who say they pleaded guilty to crimes without ever getting a chance to talk to a lawyer. Others see very little of their overworked and underpaid representatives.
Significantly more resources go to pay prosecutors than defenders, creating a dangerous imbalance in what is supposed to be a system in which all people are equal before the law.
This is the kind of thing that the Supreme Court tried to fix in the Gideon case. Unfortunately, that work is far from done.