By Kira Fonteneau, Jefferson County Public Defender
On March 18, 1963, in “Gideon v. Wainwright,” the United States Supreme Court recognized that people who are charged with crimes are entitled to legal counsel even if they cannot afford to pay for it themselves. By upholding the constitutional right to an attorney, the Court empowered the justice system as a whole.
“Our state and national constitutions and laws have laid great emphasis on procedural and substantive safeguards designed to assure fair trials before impartial tribunals in which every defendant stands equal before the law,” declared Justice Hugo Black, an Alabama native, in the court’s opinion. “This noble ideal cannot be realized if the poor man charged with crime has to face his accusers without a lawyer to assist him.”
Since Gideon, a generation of lawyers and other professionals have worked tirelessly to defend clients who would otherwise be crushed under the weight of the criminal justice system.
As lawyers who represent the poor in Alabama, we know that many people have mixed feelings about the role criminal defense lawyers play in society. It can be hard for the public to separate an individual from the grievous crimes he is accused of by the government. All too often, that societal distrust of alleged criminals is extended toward the people who defend them. As a result, there is a natural tendency to downplay the importance of providing a quality defense to those who are accused.
It is, however, important to understand that justice is only possible when it is extended to all parties in the criminal system. Although the state naturally has a legitimate need to ensure the safety of its citizens, it must always do so with the understanding that the accused is entitled to checks against abuse. These safeguards ensure that all people are given a full and fair opportunity to test the weight of the evidence against them before they are deprived of they’re liberty.
Justice means that an accused person has an opportunity to rally the defenses that could prove innocence or guilt of a lesser offense. Justice means a vigorous fight to ensure government affords each and every right conferred by the constitution. It is not by happenstance that four of the first 10 amendments concerned the rights of people who are accused of crimes. The founders were acutely aware of the potential for tyranny that could be unleashed if those who are accused of crimes are not protected. In enacting the Bill of Rights, our country made clear that justice could only be served if we had checks upon the power of the government. That is why competent and skilled defenders comprise the bedrock of the American justice system.
There are times when the public may not view the defender of justice as noble. There are times when the defender may be viewed as the villain. In truth, however, it is the defender who protects not just the accused but the community as a whole. We do so by ensuring that the state does not grow so large and powerful that the interests of the citizens get lost in the shuffle.
So today, on the 53rd anniversary of the landmark Gideon decision, we celebrate Public Defense Day. On this day, we recognize those people who stand in the gap to ensure that the poorest citizens get the same outcomes as those who can afford counsel.
Those people who undertake that defense deserve respect for ensuring that the government is held to the high standard set out by our country’s constitution. I hope you will join me in celebrate the important work that defenders do to protect the constitution.