Public defenders celebrated the 50th anniversary of a landmark Supreme Court decision at a San Francisco conference today, but at the same time heard warnings that the promise of that decision has not been fully met.
“Fifty years after Gideon v. Wainwright, equal justice for all eludes us,” author Karen Houppert told the audience at the annual Justice Summit convened by the San Francisco Public Defender’s Office.
This month is the anniversary of the 1963 decision in which the U.S. Supreme Court, ruling in the case of Clarence Gideon of Florida, said that people accused of serious crimes have a constitutional right to a free attorney if they can’t afford to pay one.
San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Adachi chose to make the ruling the theme of the 10th annual summit organized by his office.
“The decision was arguably the most important Supreme Court decision of our time and a rare triumph for poor people in the United States,” Adachi told an audience of about 200 lawyers and members of the public in an auditorium at the San Francisco Main Library.
About 80 percent of criminal defendants are now represented by government-paid public defenders, according to Adachi.
Houppert, the author of a book called “Chasing Gideon: the Elusive Search for Poor People’s Justice,” was the summit’s keynote speaker and a member of a panel on the legacy of the decision.
She said her research showed that public defenders, while often dedicated, are overburdened by large caseloads and underfunded for resources such as investigators.
Houppert recounted that during her first six months of research for her book, she felt disoriented as she sat through trials because she didn’t understand the legal language and procedures being used.
“I realized that if you understand that disorientation, then you understand the need for having an attorney,” she said.
Jonathan Rapping, the founder of an Atlanta-based training center for public defenders called Gideon’s Promise, said, “There’s no civil rights struggle going on in this country that’s more important than the right of poor people to have lawyers.”
Panelist Maurice Caldwell told how he was freed from prison in 2011 after serving 20 years for a conviction for the second-degree murder of a man in the Alemany housing project in San Francisco.
A judge found that Caldwell’s 1991 trial lawyer, a private attorney who was hired by Caldwell’s family and who was later disbarred, was incompetent in failing to interview two witnesses who later swore that Caldwell did not participate in the shooting.
Caldwell told the conference audience that at the time of the trial, “I felt that I had no weight and that my story even if it was true had no weight” because he came from the housing project.
Caldwell was released with the help of the Northern California Innocence Project at the Santa Clara University School of Law.
“For people who live in this society, you don’t know what hope is until you get in a life-threatening situation,” he said.
“Every time I got in contact with someone I thought could help me, that was hope,” he said.
Another panelist, San Francisco attorney James Brosnahan, called for state and local laws to extend the right to a lawyer to people who are caught up in civil cases.
“Six out of 10 middle-class people who go to civil court and eight out of 10 people in general do not have a lawyer” even though the cases may concern fundamental family and housing matters, said Brosnahan, who is a senior partner in the law firm of Morrison and Foerster.
A parent seeking to keep custody of her child or a tenant fighting eviction may have little chance if she has no attorney and the opposing spouse or landlord has one, he said.
In an interview after the panel, Brosnahan ticked off the skills that people who lack lawyers in civil cases need but may not have.
“They don’t know how to interview witnesses, they don’t know how to find experts, they don’t know how to hire experts, they don’t know evidence rules and they don’t know how to take an appeal,” he said.
Brosnahan noted that lawyers are not allowed to practice law until they graduated from law school and passed a bar exam proving their knowledge, yet people who can’t afford a lawyer are expected to be able to navigate the courts with those same skills.
“It makes not the slightest bit of sense to expect” people without attorneys to represent themselves effectively, he said.
Another panel later in the day addressed the related issue of justice in the bail system.
Academics, law enforcement officials and defense advocates on the panel all agreed it is not fair to condition bail release on whether a defendant has enough money, but had different takes on alternatives.
San Francisco District Attorney George Gascon said bail decisions should be based on a defendant’s risk of violence, risk of re-offending and flight risk.
“The problem we face is that we have not come up with good predictions of risk,” he said.
Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi noted that the city jail population has fallen in recent years partly as a result of bail reforms. The city jails now house an average of 1,600 inmates per day in facilities with a maximum capacity for 2,400, he said.
Vera Robles DeWitt, president of the California Bail Agents Association, said there is a place in the system for bail bondsmen.
“We work with families who want their family member out of jail. We do a better job of making sure people return to court,” she said.
University of California at Berkeley law professor Jonathan Simon cautioned, “When you build risk into the system and think you are getting away from race, you may not be.”
Gascon responded, “I don’t believe that risk assessment is mutually exclusive with fairness.”
The Supreme Court’s unanimous 1963 decision was made in a case in which Gideon was accused of burglarizing a pool hall in 1961. After being denied a court-appointed lawyer, he represented himself at his trial and was convicted and sentenced to five years in prison.
Gideon’s initial appeal to the Supreme Court was a five-page handwritten petition. He was later assigned a lawyer in the appeal.
On March 18, 1963, Justice Hugo Black wrote that a basic principle of the U.S. justice system is that “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,” Black wrote.
Gideon was granted a new trial with a lawyer and was acquitted.
Julia Cheever, Bay City News