I am writing to you about the 50th anniversary of a landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling: March 18th will mark 50 years since the Gideon v. Wainwright decision, where the Court held that people accused of crimes who cannot afford a lawyer must be provided with counsel. Shockingly, a half a century after Gideon, many of our criminal courts dispose of cases with a “meet ‘em and plead ‘em” system that has been described as “McJustice.”
Guilty pleas account for about 95 percent of criminal convictions. In many courts, poor people are processed without lawyers, including pleading guilty in groups, or after speaking with a lawyer they’ve never met and will never see again for 3-5 minutes. The risk of convicting the innocent is high, leaving the real perpetrators to remain free.
The 50th anniversary of Gideon presents a time to assess the right to counsel in America. A system where all the key actors (judges, prosecutors and defense attorneys) ignore the most fundamental constitutional rights lacks legitimacy and credibility.
Stephen Bright, President and Senior Counsel at the Southern Center on Human Rights in Atlanta, has spent a lifetime representing indigent defendants. Mr. Bright has argued and won two cases before the Supreme Court, where he got death sentences overturned because of racial discrimination. He has received the American Bar Association’s Thurgood Marshall Award and teaches at Yale Law School and the University of Georgia School of Law.
For background, attached please find an advance copy of “Fifty Years of Defiance and Resistance After Gideon v. Wainwright” by Mr. Bright and Sia Sanneh, an attorney with the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Alabama, which will be published in the Yale Law Journal.
For planning purposes, Mr. Bright will be in Washington, D.C. attending Gideon-related events at the Department of Justice on March 15, 2013 and The Constitution Project on March 18, 2013.
Margot Friedman for Southern Center on Human Rights
202-332-5550 or 202-330-9295 (c)
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