Right-to-attorney ruling turns 50 today

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GIDEON'S VICTORYClarence Earl Gideon was charged in the 1961 burglary of a pool room in Panama City, Fla. Gideon requested an attorney be appointed in his case, even though he did not have money to hire one. His request was denied: At the time, only defendants charged in capital cases or defendants with special circumstances had a constitutionally defined right to a lawyer.A jury found Gideon guilty. He appealed to the Supreme Court, arguing that his Sixth Amendment right to due process had been violated. On March 18, 1963, Justice Hugo Black delivered the ruling extending the right to an attorney to all felony cases.Source: Legal Information Institute at Cornell University Law School

Today marks a half-century since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that poor people charged with felony crimes had a right to an attorney.

The landmark case, Gideon v. Wainwright, started the practice of appointing attorneys in noncapital felony cases and helped later to birth public defender systems across the nation. But some say promises in the case have yet to be fulfilled.

Overburdened court systems and public defender offices often mean that defense attorneys can be assigned hundreds of cases a year and rarely have the time to devote to representing each client fully, said Stephen Bright, senior counsel at the Southern Center on Human Rights in Atlanta.

"There comes a tipping point where lawyers, no matter how dedicated, how competent, can't do the work," Bright said in a recent interview.

He has written an article for the Yale Law Journal that details ongoing problems with states or jurisdictions not properly funding indigent defense.

"The criminal justice system is 'out of sight, out of mind.' It's almost all poor people, and there is a very high percentage of minorities," Henry said.

Tennessee didn't establish its statewide public defender system until 1989.

Though it's likely that few people could cite the Gideon decision and many may never have to use appointed lawyers in criminal court, the right remains fundamental to a strong justice system, said Jeffrey Henry, executive director of the Tennessee District Public Defenders Conference.

"If you care anything about the Bill of Rights, you care about Gideon," Henry said.

Henry said public defenders in Tennessee have weathered the economic storm of the past few years but caseloads far exceed what multiple studies have shown as the recommended amount.

The National Advisory Commission on Criminal Justice Standards established recommended caseloads for defense attorneys in 1973. Those recommendations were renewed in 2007 after extensive review, Henry said.

The recommendations put the maximum number of felony cases per year at 150; misdemeanors at 400; juvenile cases and mental health cases at 200 each and no more than 25 appeals a year.

Those are not to be added together, but counted separately, though most public defenders and appointed attorneys do handle a variety of cases of varying complexity.

The average caseload of an assistant district public defender in Tennessee is between 600 and 650, Henry said.

Ardena Garth was appointed Hamilton County's first district public defender in 1989 and has been re-elected since then.

She has managed to keep her attorneys' caseloads near the recommended average of 150 per attorney annually but only by prioritizing the cases her staff can handle.

"This is an example of what we as public defenders are supposed to do," Garth said. "Manage our caseload."

More staffing would mean lighter caseloads. But staff costs money.

There is no legal requirement for the state to fund public defenders at a certain level in Tennessee. Henry said the conference requests annual funding like any other agency. This year's request is $45 million statewide.

In Hamilton County, the public defender receives at least 75 percent of what the county gives to the district attorney's office. Garth received $1.8 million from the conference and $413,000 last year to run the Hamilton County District Public Defender's office.

She said indigent defense and the rights promised through the Gideon ruling wouldn't be possible without a combination of appointed attorneys and the public defender's office.

"We've got it to where it's supposed to be, but we're still asking for resources to get it to where it needs to be," Garth said of public defender caseloads.

"I think if nothing else [Gideon] goes to show there are certain parts of the Constitution that sound great but there's an extra step that needs to happen for it to have teeth," Garth said.