Happy Gideon Day (briefly mentioned here)! Today is the 56th anniversary of the landmark Supreme Court case Gideon v. Wainwright, in which SCOTUS ruled that all people accused of crimes have the legal right to counsel whether or not they can afford it. The case was established when Clarence Earl Gideon was charged in 1963 with felony breaking and entering in Florida. Because of his socioeconomic status, Gideon was unable to afford counsel, so he represented himself in court after requesting representation. He was denied a lawyer because Florida’s law at the time only required defense for “an indigent defendant in capital cases,” which was inapplicable to Gideon’s case. He eventually lost his case and was sentenced to prison for five years. During his incarceration, Gideon filed a writ of habeas corpus, in which he claimed his constitutional rights to counsel were violated in trial. Although the Supreme Court of Florida denied his petition, Gideon’s case went to SCOTUS where the decision was unanimous in his favor. The court’s ruling stated that “The Sixth Amendment’s guarantee of a right to assistance of counsel applies to criminal defendants in state court by way of the Fourteenth Amendment.” And thus, the need for public defenders was established.
In my quest to find a career path that both fulfills me and allows me to help as many people as possible, I found myself turning to public defense as my main goal. Public defenders are some of the most unappreciated and unrecognized heroes in society who represent all people no matter their socioeconomic status or their innocence/guilt. Public defenders today are increasingly overworked and underpaid with many giving in to the extreme stress of the job and forgetting what makes the job so essential. Knowing how cruel, unfair, and unjust the criminal justice system is, I want to honor Gideon by becoming a public defender and doing my best to stay empathetic, compassionate, and brave and amplify the voices of the accused until we no longer need prisons. Happy Gideon Day and thank you to all public defenders!