This year, 2013, is the 50th anniversary of Gideon v. Wainwright, a Supreme Court case that defined the right to counsel.
Never heard of the case? We'll bet you know about it even if the name doesn't sound familiar. Let's try it by a different name: How about the right to have an attorney provided if you can't afford it? Does that sound familiar?
We thought so. The right to a public defender is pretty popular, and it's thanks to Gideon that you have it.
Back in 1963, Clarence Earl Gideon's case was heard in the Supreme Court. But the issue started long before that.
Gideon was arrested for robbery and at his hearing, he requested an attorney. But in Florida at that time, public defenders were only available for capital offenses.
So Gideon was left to defend himself. Let's just say it didn't go well for him; it rarely goes well for anyone.
But Gideon appealed the ruling, noting that the Sixth Amendment guarantees a criminal defendant the right to "have the Assistance of Counsel for his defence." It doesn't say anything about which crimes qualify.
The Supreme Court agreed and ruled in Gideon's favor. It noted that the Fourteenth Amendment requires states to provide certain protections.
That includes the Sixth Amendment right to have an attorney provided if you can't afford one.
Now, public defenders exist in every state and represent criminal defendants in cases both big and small. Each state has its own requirements for who qualifies financially for a public defender, but people who can't afford attorneys will have them provided.
Gideon also paved for the way for later Supreme Court cases that further defined what the Sixth Amendment right to counsel meant. It includes the right to have an attorney at every stage of trial, including pre-trial hearings and any appeals as a matter of right.
If you find yourself in legal trouble, the attorney you hire generally has more time and energy for your case than the often-overworked public defenders. But if that's all you can afford, thank Clarence Gideon that you're guaranteed to have one.