The right of the accused to a fair trial is one of the most important and basic rights of Americans. But "equality before the law" and "presumption of innocence" are little more than hopeful phrases if the accused can't get adequate legal representation.
In too many cases, the poor are deprived of that right because they can't afford a competent attorney, or they live in states with public defense systems that fail to provide a robust defense for all indigent defendants. That said, the problem would be far worse if not for a Supreme Court ruling that marked its 50th anniversary on Monday. The landmark decision in Gideon v. Wainwright held that states are constitutionally required to provide a lawyer to individuals charged with a felony and unable to afford an attorney. The right now extends to other crimes.
In 1961, Clarence Earl Gideon was charged with a felony in Florida -- breaking and entering a pool hall to steal some vending machine change. Gideon was too poor to hire an attorney. Representing himself, he was convicted and sentenced to five years in prison. He appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, arguing that the state's failure to appoint a lawyer violated his constitutional rights.
The court agreed and reversed the conviction. Gideon was retried with an appointed attorney and acquitted.
Gideon v. Wainwright remains one of the Supreme Court's most important decisions. Fifty years later, states must continue to work to fulfill its promise of equal justice for all.