How a poor drifter won your right to an attorney

Fifty-three years ago today, a poor man who had been charged with breaking into a pool hall had his conviction overturned by the United States Supreme Court. Clarence Earl Gideon didn’t have a lawyer when he was tried.

He had been sentenced to five years in prison. He was retried and found not guilty.

You cannot love the law unless you also love its fair application, and yet when it comes to public defenders, there often doesn’t seem to be a lot of sympathy for the people who guarantee fairness.

I followed one in Dakota County for a day six years ago at a time when then-Gov. Tim Pawlenty was trying to cut the budget of public defenders. People charged with crimes aren’t much of a voting block.

The public defenders? When’s the last time you saw one honored at halftime of a game and cheered for defending freedom?

In fact, when rumors surfaced that a public defender was under consideration to replace Antonin Scalia on the Supreme Court, a special interest group launched attack ads.

What was wrong with Jane Kelly, a federal appeals court judge in Iowa? She once defended people in a system that requires prosecutors to prove their case.

Today is Public Defender Day, honoring the 1963 decision and everyone who passed up the big bucks of being a lawyer to defend people who don’t have a dime.

They’re not only on the outside looking in when it comes to the public’s appreciation, they’re on the outside looking in in the system itself.

“There are far fewer public defenders who get appointed to judgeships than prosecutors, a discrepancy that experts say has an impact in how cases are decided and can have a negative influence on criminal defendants,” Casey Tolin at Fusion writes today.

“Judges bring their life experience and professional experience, which informs their perspective, judges bring that to the bench,” Kyle Barry, the Director of Justice Programs for the Alliance for Justice, told Fusion. “Understanding how the law affects the more vulnerable and marginalized members of our society is incredibly important.”

Happy Public Defenders Day, public defenders.

Thank you for your service.

Related: In defense of public defenders (Bench & Bar)