Today is a big day, symbolically-speaking, in the world of criminal defense.
You see, 50 years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court issued its opinion in the case of Gideon vs. Wainwright and guaranteed everyone the right to an attorney. Hard to believe this has only been set in stone for 50 years, but there it is.
When Clarence Gideon was arrested for theft in 1961, the state of Florida didn’t offer attorneys for criminal defendants unless they were charged with a capital crime. Gideon got five years in prison, and used his time there to write his own appeal to the high court.
The court decided to hear the case. That’s when Gideon finally got a lawyer. He won at the Supreme Court level, and the opinion insured that any other person in his shoes would get a lawyer, even if they can’t afford it.
Gideon was then given an lawyer in the underlying Florida theft case and earned an acquittal.
The lawyers at the Minnehaha County Public Defender’s Office, not surprisingly, feel pretty strongly about the Gideon decision. On Saturday, a mess of them ran in the St. Patrick’s 5K run wearing Gideon t-shirts.
Here’s a group shot of the “Gideon Gallopers.”
On the back, the shirts have a quote from the opinion:
“Lawyers in criminal courts are necessities, not luxuries” - Justice Hugo Black
Of course, the delivery of legal representation hasn’t arrived exactly as the Justices imagined. That’s how reality works.
In some states, public defenders are so overworked that they’ve actually turned people away.
The USA Today has Al Flora, a Luzerne County, Pa. public defender, talking about the overload in his office. I was struck by this quote:
He says some public defenders “don’t want to talk about the problem. I decided to go the other way. This has to stop.”
Flora’s right. Plenty of public defenders don’t want to talk about it. That’s because every day, in every prison and every jail, there are inmates complaining about their lawyer. Plenty of them think they can’t get quality representation from a court-appointed lawyer, that they’re offered the dregs of the legal work force while the well-off get spit-shined legal hotshots who lavish them and their case with attention.
Traci Smith (She’s number 730 in the photo), the Minnehaha County Public Defender, has always denied this charge in vigorous fashion.
Her lawyers are smart, hard-working people who do some of the most difficult cases in the state, she says. Their heavy caseloads and the variety of cases they take make them better lawyers, she says.
She’s also told me on numerous occasions that she’d stack their work up against the work of a private lawyer any day of the week, thank you very much.
That doesn’t mean she’s living in La La Land. The office needs more help, and she tells Minnehaha County Commissioners as much every year at budget time. State’s Attorney Aaron McGowan does the same thing, frankly. Growing counties tend to have growing caseloads.
When I emailed Smith to ask about the Gideon Gallopers, she offered the following stats:
“We opened 6,855 cases last year. Our stats showed we should have had 26 attorneys to meet the caseload demands for the number of cases we closed last year. We currently have 22 attorneys. We closed 6,298 cases in 2012, which was up from the 5,514 we closed in 2011.”
So will there come a day when Public Defenders in Minnehaha County are so overwhelmed they refuse to take on new cases, similar to the Pa. office profiled in USA Today?
You check your crystal ball, I’ll check mine.