Blomquist: Gideon at 50 is A Work in Progress

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blomquist-kerry2013 marks the 50th anniversary of Gideon v. Wainwright, the landmark Supreme Court decision that established that under the Constitution, states are required to provide a lawyer to criminally charged defendants who cannot otherwise afford one. The Gideon ruling is rightfully celebrated as an important legal victory, but I am not alone when I suggest we still have promises to keep, 50 years later.

Despite substantial changes to our criminal justice system since Gideon, state and federal governments have still not committed the funding necessary for public defenders to keep pace with the rising flood of criminal cases. The much-touted “War on Crime” of the 1980s resulted in record-breaking arrests that were not met with a system realistically prepared to offer justice to all. Bankrolling the War on Crime was easy enough but when time came to fund indigent defense, our leaders got squeamish and shortsighted and failed to realize a basic fact: the cost of indigent defense is part of the cost of criminal justice.

According to the Justice Policy Institute, over the last 25 years spending on public defense has remained far below other criminal justice expenditures. For every dollar spent on public defense, we spend nearly $14 on corrections and $20 on police protection. And the results are getting pretty obvious.

Today, we live in an era of mass incarceration, caused in part by this broken promise. The United States leads the world in number of people in prison. After 40 years of the War on Drugs and “tough on crime” policies combined with the routine denial of effective legal representation for poor defendants, there are currently 2.3 million people behind bars—nearly half for nonviolent crimes. THAT is expensive at over $30,000 per inmate, per year…yet we also spend less on public defense as a percentage per capita than every single European nation. Coincidence? I think not.

According to the American Bar Association, 70 to 90 percent of criminal defendants qualify for publicly funded attorneys today; that is a far cry from the 40 percent of Gideon days. Caseloads are exorbitant, with today’s public defenders carrying upwards of 300 cases at a time. Issues are more complex, needing investigation, scientific testing and more extensive discovery. Juries are made up of the “CSI” generation now, so they want it all and they want it now with little regard to cost. And finally, public defender positions tend to be underpaid so they attract less experienced lawyers. The result is, in this author’s opinion, the lack of time, training, resources and support these lawyers need to consistently put their best foot forward; to offer justice as promised and to fulfill the promise of Gideon.

One solid and commanding voice in this discussion has been my former law school dean, Former Dean and Professor of Law Norman Lefstein, who has both studied and worked this issue for decades. In his 2011 book, “Securing Reasonable Caseloads: Ethics and Law in Public Defense,” Lefstein notes that we have a moral and ethical duty to draw a line in the sand and “just say no” to compromising the quality of legal representation because of outrageous caseloads.

Gideon’s 50th birthday has set Congress atwitter as well, literally and figuratively, with the introduction of legislation that would require states to use existing federal funds to improve the administration of criminal justice in strategic ways. This would include providing for adequate training, compensation and support for public defenders. The Gideon’s Promise Act of 2013 would hold states accountable for providing effective representation to criminal defendants, because to do less than that risks the very freedom of those we have promised to protect.

Earlier this month, I was fortunate to represent this bar association in a federal district court naturalization hearing held for the first time at Shortridge Magnet School on Law and Public Policy. While these ceremonies are always moving, this one was particularly near and dear to my heart because it was the culmination of nearly a year of planning to create the perfect storm. On that day, in that auditorium, 83 people from more than 40 countries were sworn in as new U.S. citizens by Federal District Court Judge Jane Magnus-Stinson, in full view of a student body comprising young people impatient to work for justice.

It was a beautiful thing and a vivid reminder that America is still the “destination capital of the world” for those looking for opportunity, equality, and freedom. Truth is, all over this country immigrants are willing to renounce any and all allegiance to their birth country to pledge their allegiance to the United States of America; to fight and die in our wars; to pay our taxes; and to peacefully assimilate in this melting pot of society. In short, to live in “One Nation, Under God, Indivisible, with Liberty and Justice for all.” Let’s not forget our promise to them.•


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  1. I think the cops are doing a great job locking up criminals. The Murder rates in the inner cities are skyrocketing and you think that too any people are being incarcerated. Maybe we need to lock up more of them. We have the ACLU, BLM, NAACP, Civil right Division of the DOJ, the innocent Project etc. We have court system with an appeal process that can go on for years, with attorneys supplied by the government. I'm confused as to how that translates into the idea that the defendants are not being represented properly. Maybe the attorneys need to do more Pro-Bono work

  2. We do not have 10% of our population (which would mean about 32 million) incarcerated. It's closer to 2%.

  3. If a class action suit or other manner of retribution is possible, count me in. I have email and voicemail from the man. He colluded with opposing counsel, I am certain. My case was damaged so severely it nearly lost me everything and I am still paying dearly.

  4. There's probably a lot of blame that can be cast around for Indiana Tech's abysmal bar passage rate this last February. The folks who decided that Indiana, a state with roughly 16,000 to 18,000 attorneys, needs a fifth law school need to question the motives that drove their support of this project. Others, who have been "strong supporters" of the law school, should likewise ask themselves why they believe this institution should be supported. Is it because it fills some real need in the state? Or is it, instead, nothing more than a resume builder for those who teach there part-time? And others who make excuses for the students' poor performance, especially those who offer nothing more than conspiracy theories to back up their claims--who are they helping? What evidence do they have to support their posturing? Ultimately, though, like most everything in life, whether one succeeds or fails is entirely within one's own hands. At least one student from Indiana Tech proved this when he/she took and passed the February bar. A second Indiana Tech student proved this when they took the bar in another state and passed. As for the remaining 9 who took the bar and didn't pass (apparently, one of the students successfully appealed his/her original score), it's now up to them (and nobody else) to ensure that they pass on their second attempt. These folks should feel no shame; many currently successful practicing attorneys failed the bar exam on their first try. These same attorneys picked themselves up, dusted themselves off, and got back to the rigorous study needed to ensure they would pass on their second go 'round. This is what the Indiana Tech students who didn't pass the first time need to do. Of course, none of this answers such questions as whether Indiana Tech should be accredited by the ABA, whether the school should keep its doors open, or, most importantly, whether it should have even opened its doors in the first place. Those who promoted the idea of a fifth law school in Indiana need to do a lot of soul-searching regarding their decisions. These same people should never be allowed, again, to have a say about the future of legal education in this state or anywhere else. Indiana already has four law schools. That's probably one more than it really needs. But it's more than enough.

  5. This man Steve Hubbard goes on any online post or forum he can find and tries to push his company. He said court reporters would be obsolete a few years ago, yet here we are. How does he have time to search out every single post about court reporters and even spy in private court reporting forums if his company is so successful???? Dude, get a life. And back to what this post was about, I agree that some national firms cause a huge problem.