This week, we’re sharing two discussions on John Whitlow’s recently published article reflecting on New York’s right to counsel in evictions proceedings. Our contributors share visions of right to counsel that move beyond due process rights. The contributors show that right to counsel campaigns are part of broader movements that seek to address the material deprivation underlying the need for counsel in the first place.
John Sadek and Sam Natale –
373 U.S. 335. For many public defenders, these eight characters are immediately recognizable. Better known as Gideon v. Wainwright—the famous Supreme Court case that established a constitutional right to public defenders in criminal cases. Many defenders have those same eight characters tattooed as a mark of vocation and a symbol of dedication to the work.
Gideon similarly marks the whole profession: it is our foundational myth, which is retold as follows. Clarence Gideon, facing a felony charge, asked the trial court to appoint an attorney to represent him—a request the trial court denied, stating that the court could not appoint a lawyer. After conviction and without counsel from his prison cell, Gideon handwrote and filed an appeal to the Supreme Court. Yale-educated attorney Abe Fortas then took on the case and persuaded the nine justices, who unanimously ordered a new trial for Clarence Gideon. They held that the assistance of counsel in a criminal trial is a fundamental right essential to a fair trial, a right that requires appointed counsel when a person cannot otherwise afford a lawyer.
Liberal law schools everywhere champion this story as a testament to the will and fortitude of a man who kept pushing for his rights, and a Supreme Court, that, in their wisdom, agreed and made this right the law of the land. The moral of this story is that an individual with faith in the system and a talented lawyer with the right ideas can change everything. However, this myth is missing the role of movements in establishing this right—the decades of union and anti-racist organizing that led to all but eight states adopting right to counsel far before Gideon was even decided.