In 1961, Bay County, Florida, officials charged Hannibal native Clarence Earl Gideon with breaking and entering in the Panama City area with the intent to commit a misdemeanor.
That was a felony under Florida law.
At his trial, Gideon appeared in court without an attorney and, in open court, asked the judge to appoint counsel for him because he could not afford an attorney — but the trial judge denied Gideon's request, because Florida law permitted appointment of counsel only for poor defendants charged with capital offenses like murder.
On March 18, 1963, a unanimous U.S. Supreme Court ruled the federal Constitution's Sixth Amendment guarantee of counsel is a fundamental right essential to a fair trial — and applies to the states through the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.
Chief Justice Hugo Black wrote, "In our adversary system of criminal justice, any person haled into court, who is too poor to hire a lawyer, cannot be assured a fair trial unless counsel is provided for him."
That ruling, the Missouri State Public Defender's office noted in a news release Monday, means this week — March 13-18 — is Public Defender week, commemorating the 54th anniversary of the landmark decision in "Gideon v. Wainwright."
"Public Defender Week" comes just days after the ACLU and a St. Louis law firm filed a class action suit in Cole County Circuit Court, complaining the Missouri public defender system "is shockingly inadequate" and accusing the government of failing to "meet its constitutional obligation to provide indigent defendants with meaningful representation."
The ACLU lawsuit argues, because of the overburdened system, "Missourians accused of crimes often languish in jail for months — or plead guilty, despite having a winnable case, just to get out of jail and avoid losing their jobs, their homes and more time with their families."
The Sixth Amendment says: "In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the State and district wherein the crime shall have been committed and to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defense."
On its information page about the Gideon case, the federal courts' website notes Gideon "was an unlikely hero a man with an eighth-grade education who ran away from home when he was in middle school. He spent much of his early adult life as a drifter, spending time in and out of prisons for nonviolent crimes."
After his arrest in Florida, Gideon represented himself at his trial, making an opening statement, cross-examining the prosecution's witnesses and presenting his own witnesses — "all while maintaining his innocence," Missouri Public Defender Michael Barrett wrote in Monday's news release. But "the jury found Gideon guilty and he was sentenced to five years imprisonment."
He appealed to Florida's Supreme Court but was rejected.
So, Barrett wrote: "Gideon filed a handwritten petition in the Supreme Court of the United States. The Court agreed to hear the case to resolve the question of whether the right to counsel guaranteed under the Sixth Amendment of the Constitution applies to defendants in state court."
In response to the 1963 ruling, states eventually created systems where state-paid lawyers provided legal defense work for poor clients charged with crimes.
In Missouri, public defenders are appointed in cases where the charge includes a possible jail or prison sentence.
"Missouri's public defenders are committed and skilled. They handle more than 80,000 cases annually, with an average caseload of between 100-200 cases at any one time," Barrett wrote. "They are drastically underpaid. Despite the fact that many of our attorneys carry law school debt that exceeds $100,000, starting salary for a public defender is around $39,000 — and the maximum that someone can earn as an assistant public defender is about $63,000."
He added: "Despite the impossible task which has been placed upon them, public defenders fight daily so that a poor person receives a fair shot in an unfair criminal justice system. They fight to ensure that a poor person receives due process before they are deprived of the one thing they have in this world, their liberty."
The ACLU case was assigned to Presiding Circuit Judge Patricia Joyce. It's too early in the legal process for any hearings to have been set.