A historic decision

The right to a public defender opened the doors of justice for the poorest

Fifty years ago, Clarence Earl Gideon got a new trial after appealing his sentence to the U.S. Supreme Court, because he lacked legal representation. His legal victory and subsequent acquittal in Florida established the right to a defense attorney.

Giddeon’s petition to the high court, handwritten by a poorly educated prisoner, was accepted and used to ensure one of the main rights in our society. It is an extraordinary page in U.S. legal history.

Half a century later, this promise of adequate legal representation, even for the most indigent defendants, has been deteriorating as public defender’s offices have been flooded with cases and are unable to keep up with them to provide better service. According to the Justice Policy Institute, 73% of county-based public defender’s offices nationwide lack the number of attorneys needed to handle the caseloads, and almost a quarter have less than half the number of attorneys they need. These challenges have negatively impacted many low-income defendants.

The Gideon decision also had a crucial impact on another U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 2010, Padilla v. Kentucky, which established that attorneys are required to explain to their clients the impact of the decisions they make on their deportation.

The decision in the Gideon case made Amendments 6 and 14 of the Constitution—which respectively establish the rights of a defendant and equal protection under the law in the states—a reality for Americans, no matter their financial situation.

The right to a public defender had already existed since the 1930s. The ruling expanded it to the states, beginning a new era that put justice within the reach of our society’s neediest people.