Gideon at 50: Half a Century of Public Defenders

by Graham Bryant, Class of 2016

Many students considering William & Mary Law have a passion for public service, and the public defender appears as an archetypal citizen lawyer: accepting low pay and long hours to serve those whom no one else will help. It’s hard to imagine the American criminal justice system without a defendant’s right to counsel, but that right has only been around for fifty years.

In 1961, a Florida court refused to provide Clarence Earl Gideon with court appointed counsel. Gideon tried, and failed, to defend himself against larceny charges and was sent to jail for a crime he didn’t commit. There, writing on prison stationary, Gideon drafted a petition of certiorari to the Supreme Court arguing that denial of counsel violated the 14th Amendment right to due process of law. That handwritten petition would forever change the landscape of American criminal process.

The Supreme Court issued an opinion in Gideon v. Wainwright in 1963, establishing the uniform right to counsel for indigent defendants. Gideon is a decision worth celebrating, and W&M Law did not let the occasion go unnoticed.

To commemorate the anniversary, three W&M Law student organizations—the American Constitution Society, the Institute of Bill of Rights Law: Student Division, and the Criminal Law Society—sponsored a series of events in early November including a showing of Gideon’s Trumpet and a panel discussion about the past, present, and future of indigent defense.

photo 1Longtime public defender James Hingeley opened by telling attendees about the challenges Virginia public defenders faced during the formative years following Gideon. In addition to a prevalent social stigma (that defenders employed tricks and exploited technicalities to get bad guys off the hook), even as recently as the late 1990s, Virginia public defenders received the lowest compensation of any state.

Things have gotten better. Panelist Lorrie Sinclair, W&M Law alumna and former Virginia prosecutor, stated the current indigent defense situation succinctly: “We have made significant improvements, but we still have a long way to go.”

Specifically, public defenders still face a certain degree of social ostracism. Rob Poggenklass, a 2010 W&M Law graduate and Newport News public defender, told attendees, “The system has changed, but public opinion has not.”

The reason for this sluggish change in public opinion, according to Hingeley, is that few laypeople are receptive to the plea to pay lawyers more. But when public defenders like Poggenklass are handling between 150 and 200 cases at a time, and court appointed attorneys receive $90 an hour and are capped at five hours per case, indigent defense in Virginia is still very much a “system predicated on sacrifice,” as Hingeley put it.

So what’s the take-away for an aspiring law student? For one, the Gideon events show that W&M Law’s student organizations are not only passionate about current legal issues, but are also eager to collaborate in raising awareness about them. Having the chance to learn about the development and challenges of Virginia indigent defense has helped me become a more well-rounded student, especially as a member of the Criminal Law Society considering a career in criminal law.

After all, as Hingeley said, “it’s not all about guilt and innocence.” Law is a human endeavor. “Defendant” is more than a label, and because of one determined defendant named Gideon, every criminal defendant now has the right to counsel. Part of being a citizen lawyer is learning to see past the labels, and at W&M Law, I’ve begun learning to do just that.

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