Gideon v. Wainwright and the role of public-defense lawyers

Rights, Crime

Nikolas Cruz, the defendant in the Parkland, Florida school shooting, stands accused of killing 17 innocent victims. The evidence against him – including a confession – seems overwhelming. Bereft of money, where can he find legal representation? From public-defense lawyers: court-appointed criminal attorneys who represent defendants who cannot afford to hire their own lawyer.

Initially, Cruz pleaded not guilty to the charges against him, but that plea was withdrawn by his lawyers. As of March 8, 2018, he is officially ‘standing mute’ in the counts against him, a strategy intended to be sensitive to the community while shifting the trial focus to the penalty phase, which could include the death penalty. These complicated legal maneuvers shine a light on the vital role that public-defense attorneys play in criminal cases across the United States.

The Cruz case also highlights one of the key challenges of the public-defense lawyer’s role: to fight for defendants whose guilt seems obvious. Our adversarial legal system requires that all defendants receive zealous representation, which public-defense lawyers provide to the innocent and guilty alike.

Gideon and the right to an attorney

Anyone who has watched a cop show on TV knows the familiar phrase included in the Miranda warning: “You have the right to an attorney. If you cannot afford an attorney, one will be appointed for you.”

The right to court-appointed counsel didn’t become settled law until March 18, 1963, when the U.S. Supreme Court decided Gideon v. Wainwright, a case involving an impoverished Florida defendant. The Court’s ruling guaranteed defendants the right to an attorney in all criminal cases. Before Gideon, Florida only provided public defense to indigent defendants in capital (death penalty) cases. In the Court’s unanimous Gideon decision, Justice Hugo Black wrote, “[R]eason 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.”

As attorney Robert Lee Marshall explains in this Avvo answer, some court-appointed attorneys are government employees, who are paid to defend indigent clients. These salaried government lawyers are called public defenders. But oftentimes, a public defender isn’t available – because the jurisdiction has no public-defender office or all the public defenders are engaged. In such cases, the court appoints a private defense attorney, whose fee will be paid by the government; while not public defenders per se, they function in the same role and are a key part of the public-defense system.

Overworked and underfunded

Court-appointed attorneys are often the last, and only, line of defense for poor individuals in the criminal justice system. Unfortunately, many public defenders toil in agencies that are overworked and underfunded. Massive caseloads mean that the public defenders have limited time to spend with any one defendant. A recent study in Idaho showed that public defenders in that state spend an average of four hours on felony cases. Idaho is facing the first ever statewide lawsuit challenging the constitutionality their public defense system.

Caught in political cross-currents

Political strife also impacts public defenders, as in the current conflict between federal immigration officials and local government and law enforcement. In February, 75 public defenders in New York City walked out in protest after Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents detained an undocumented defendant when he exited the courthouse. Advocates claim that the ICE officers’ presence outside the courtroom intimidates witnesses and discourages victims from coming forward, thereby impairing the judicial process.

Hopeful actions

The news isn’t all bleak. In early March 2018, Alaska lawmakers moved forward on legislation to fund four additional attorneys in that state’s public-defense system. Moreover, general awareness of the importance of public defenders is building, thanks to events like Public Defense Awareness Week, celebrated annually during the third week in March. And in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, the public defender’s office was honored for service to the community. As the county’s chief public defender, Dean Beer, said in his remarks, “We really provide not only zealous advocacy, but we treat every client that comes in our office with dignity and respect.”