The Legacy of Gideon v. Wainwright

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A still from Gideon's Trumpet.

Anthony Lewis in the documentary Defending Gideon.

Anthony Lewis, The New York Times journalist whose masterwork chronicled the Supreme Court’s landmark Gideon v. Wainwright decision, died earlier this week at the age of 85. The court’s ruling, handed down 50 years ago last week, established a criminal defendant’s right to an attorney, even if that defendant cannot afford one. On our next episode of Moyers & Company, Bill and Bryan Stevenson, the executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative, discuss how despite decisions like Gideon, economic and racial inequality continue to plague our justice system — in many cases, running more rampant than ever.

Here are some resources on Anthony Lewis and the legacy of Gideon v. Wainwright.

1. Gideon’s Trumpet

In 1964, Lewis, a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, published his book Gideon’s Trumpet. In it, he described Clarence Earl Gideon as a wrongly convicted Florida man convinced that he was entitled to legal representation even though the state of Florida said otherwise. He wrote:

“Gideon was a fifty-one-year-old white man who had been in and out of prisons much of his life. He had served time for four previous felonies, and he bore the physical marks of a destitute life: a wrinkled, prematurely aged face, a voice and hands that trembled, a frail body, white hair. He had never been a professional criminal or man of violence; he just could not seem to settle down to work, and so he had made his way by gambling and occasional thefts. Those who had known him, even the men who had arrested him and those who were now his jailers, considered Gideon a perfectly harmless human being, rather likeable, but one tossed aside by life. Anyone meeting him for the first time would be likely to regard him as the most wretched of men.

And yet a flame still burned in Clarence Earl Gideon. He had not given up caring about life or freedom; he had not lost his sense of injustice. Right now he had a passionate — some thought almost irrational — feeling of having been wronged by the State of Florida, and he had the determination to try to do something about it.”

Click to read from Gideon’s Trumpet.

2. Defending Gideon

This Aug. 6, 1963 photo shows Clarence Earl Gideon after his release from a Panama City, Florida, jail. (AP Photo, File)

A new documentary from The Constitution Project and the New Media Advocacy Project examines the impact of Gideon v. Wainwright and includes a recent interview with Anthony Lewis as well as an archival interview from the 1960s with Gideon, who explains that he was surprised to hear from the trial judge that he was not entitled to a lawyer.

“Another man with money can hire a lawyer to represent him, he’d get a better chance in a trial than I would get without an attorney,” Gideon says. “To me that was just common sense, there was no argument to it.”

Lewis comments: “It’s interesting thinking about Gideon, and what drove him to this incorrect belief that he was entitled to a lawyer — but which turned out to be the correct belief.” You can watch Defending Gideon, in full, below.

3. “The Silencing of Gideon’s Trumpet”

Ten years ago, on the 40th anniversary of Gideon v. Wainwright, Lewis described in The New York Times Magazine the “endless failures to bring the promise of Gideon to life.” He wrote, “Even more alarming is the assertion by the Bush administration that in a whole new class of cases it can deny the right to counsel altogether. Those are the cases of American citizens designated by Bush as ‘enemy combatants.'” That wartime spin on Gideon’s legacy — fresh in 2003 — remains relevant today as the Obama White House comes under fire for the targeted killing of American citizens abroad by drone attacks and continuing accusations of unfettered domestic surveillance and other violations of civil liberties.

4. Adam Liptak on Lewis’s Transformative Journalism

Adam Liptak, one of Lewis’s successors as Supreme Court correspondent for The New York Times, wrote the paper’s obituary of its former reporter and columnist. He noted that Gideon’s Trumpet has never been out of print from the day it was published, and that Lewis’s knowledgeable and thorough coverage of the court during the years Earl Warren served as its chief justice made him almost as essential to its history as the judges themselves. Liptak quoted Ronald K. L. Collins, a scholar at the University of Washington who compiled a bibliography of Lewis’s work:

“You cannot talk about the legacy of the Warren court and not talk about Tony Lewis,” he said. “He was just part and parcel of it. He was part of ushering in that constitutional revolution in civil rights and civil liberties from Brown v. Board of Education to Miranda v. Arizona.”

5. Andrew Cohen on Lewis and Gideon today

Writing in The Atlantic earlier this month, legal scholar Andrew Cohen described how, in the story of Gideon v. Wainwright, Lewis found material for one of the “best nonfiction works written about the Supreme Court and the American legal system.”

It was Lewis, click-clacking away on his typewriter as a correspondent covering the Court, at the right place at the right time, who first recognized the story the case might one day become. It was Lewis who gained access to all of the key players and whose coverage of the Court in 1963 earned him his second Pulitzer Prize.

“And all of it was sort of romantic,” Anthony Lewis would say four decades later, speaking about the case of his lifetime. “Right from the beginning it struck me” that “something important might well happen,” he told an interviewer in 1993, “and it was started by this prisoner’s handwritten letter on stationary that said ‘Approved Warden’ or something like that.” From the state prison in Raiford, Florida, Clarence Gideon had written the justices directly, asking them to overturn his larceny conviction and five-year prison sentence because he had not been given a lawyer at trial.

But the thrust of Cohen’s essay is that Gideon’s legacy has not fared so well. A Brennan Center for Justice report found that many court appointed lawyers are overworked and spend less than six minutes per case at hearings where they counsel their clients to plead guilty. Lawmakers haven’t funded public defenders adequately, Cohen says, and the Supreme Court has not required them to do so.

So today, the justices won’t secure the basic fair trial rights they themselves recognized in Gideon. And today, elected officials see no political value in spending the money it would take to ensure that every American has an opportunity for equal justice. It’s not that there aren’t solutions to the problem of securing a meaningful right to counsel for all litigants. There are plenty of solutions floating around. The problem is the political and legal will to implement those policy choices — to make good on the promise the Supreme Court made to America 50 years ago amid such hope and fanfare.


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