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Gideon’s Half Century: The Ongoing Struggle for Indigent Defense

By Robin Frazer Clark

This year, the American legal community is observing the 50th anniversary of the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision in Gideon v. Wainwright, a unanimous ruling that defendants in criminal cases have the right to an attorney, regardless of their ability to pay for such representation.

The case involved Clarence Earl Gideon, a Florida prison inmate who had been convicted in 1961 of felony breaking and entering after the trial judge declined to appoint counsel for him. Florida law at the time provided for appointed representation only for capital cases. Gideon was forced to represent himself, and the result was a conviction and five-year prison sentence.

While incarcerated, Gideon researched the appeals process in the prison library and made an appeal first to the Florida Supreme Court, which was turned down. Then, on prison stationery, he submitted a handwritten petition to the U.S. Supreme Court, asking for a review of his case on the grounds that his 6th Amendment right to counsel was denied.

Overturning previous rulings on the appointment of counsel to indigent defendants in non-capital cases, the Court on March 18, 1963, issued a unanimous opinion that the assistance of counsel was a fundamental right, regardless of one’s status, class or wealth. The criminal justice system was changed forever, and new offices of public defenders or their equivalent began to spring up around the country.

Two years after the decision, Clarence Gideon was retried in Florida, with an appointed attorney conducting his defense. This time, he was found not guilty.

Gideon’s petition was successful. A half-century after that historic ruling, criminal defendants who cannot afford representation rely on the indigent defense system to protect their constitutional rights. For the rest of us, indigent defense protects the integrity of the judicial process and helps ensure the truly guilty are held accountable for their crimes.

We cannot overestimate the significance of Gideon.  As Robert F. Kennedy said, "If an obscure Florida convict named Clarence Earl Gideon had not sat down in his prison cell . . . to write a letter to the Supreme Court . . . the vast machinery of American law would have gone on functioning undisturbed. But Gideon did write that letter, the Court did look into his case . . . and the whole course of American legal history has been changed."

Many states, over the years, have experienced economic and political pressures that have made it difficult for their public defender programs to receive the necessary funding to keep up with caseload demands effectively. As Kevin Scruggs, director of the Criminal Justice Standards Project at the American Bar Association, recently wrote, “The question of adequate funding is an important one to these offices and to their indigent defendant clients. Without the proper funding to investigate, it is difficult, if not impossible, for an attorney to adequately represent someone.”

When the General Assembly created the Georgia Public Defender Standards Council in 2003 to meet our state’s constitutional responsibilities for indigent defense, a $15 filing fee increase on all Georgia civil filings was enacted to pay for the new system.  On some occasions during the economic recession, shrinking tax revenues forced legislative budget writers to redirect some of the proceeds from those fees into other areas of the budget.

For example, in Fiscal Year 2012, this funding mechanism generated approximately $42 million for the indigent defense system.  The Legislature appropriated $ 33.5 million of this to the indigent defense system, or roughly 80 percent of the fees collected for that purpose. The Legislature must appropriate enough money to run the indigent defense system from these proceeds and we hope the percentage of these funds returned to the Georgia Indigent Defense System will continue to increase each year.  Adequate funding will continue to be at the crux of the vitality of the Georgia Indigent Defense System, as our economy has not yet fully recovered and more and more demands are made on our state budget.

The good news is that we have a number of dedicated leaders in position to continue the fight for indigent defense in Georgia, including Gov. Nathan Deal, who has demonstrated his commitment to indigent defense funding; W. Travis Sakrison, who is doing an exemplary job as executive director of the Georgia Public Defender Standards Council; state Rep. Rich Golick, chairman of the House Judiciary Non-Civil Committee, a tireless advocate for indigent defense funding in the Legislature; and State Bar Past President Bryan Cavan, who serves as chair our of Indigent Defense Committee.

Justice Hugo Black, who authored Gideon, observed "That government hires lawyers to prosecute and defendants who have the money hire lawyers to defend are the strongest indications of the widespread belief that lawyers in criminal courts are necessities, not luxuries."

Through the continued efforts of these leaders and others to strengthen our system of public defenders and appointed counsel for indigent defendants, I am confident that the legacy of Gideon v. Wainwright will be fulfilled in Georgia’s criminal courts, answering the call to promote the cause of justice, uphold the rule of law and protect the rights of all citizens.

Robin Frazer Clark of Atlanta is president of the State Bar of Georgia and can be reached at


The ABA Section of Litigation has done a remarkable job of celebrating this important milestone. Please view their website for more information, including a recorded program with rare, vintage footage of Clarence Gideon himself and much more. You may also read Gideon's original handwritten petition.