National Public Defense Day is commemorated every year on March 18. On that day in 1963, the United States Supreme Court decided the landmark case of Gideon v. Wainwright, establishing the right to counsel in criminal cases for people who could not afford to hire a lawyer.
The Supreme Court based its ruling in the case of Clarence Earl Gideon, a poor man with an eighth-grade education was arrested for a pool hall burglary in which about $5 and a few drinks were stolen. Mr. Gideon proclaimed his innocence and asked for a lawyer. The judge told him that anyone too poor to hire a lawyer had to represent himself. Mr. Gideon tried his best, but the jury convicted him, and he was sentenced to five years in state prison.
From his Florida prison cell, Mr. Gideon submitted a handwritten petition to a higher court, arguing that the US Constitution does not allow people to be convicted and sent to prison without legal representation. The court found that “reason and reflection require us to recognize that in our adversary system of criminal justice, any person haled into court, who is too poor to hire a lawyer, cannot be assured of a fair trial unless counsel is provided for him.” The US Supreme Court reversed Mr. Gideon’s conviction and granted him a new trial, ordering that he be provided with a lawyer. With the assistance of counsel, Mr. Gideon was acquitted.
This year marks the 60th anniversary of Gideon v. Wainwright. This day highlights the important, dedicated, excellent and diligent work that everyone in the indigenous defense community does on behalf of their clients. Public defense attorneys, paralegals, investigators, legal support staff and client support specialists provide zealous, client-centered representation to independent individuals accused of crime. The public defense community’s role is to advocate for ordinary citizens, reaffirm their human dignity and protect their constitutional rights.
Stanislaus County has a long-standing tradition of equal justice regardless of income, having established the office of the Stanislaus County Public Defender in 1955. During its first nine months, the Public Defender’s Office handled the cases of 157 individuals. During that period, three jury trials were conducted resulting in one acquittal, one hung jury and one conviction. Two court trials were conducted on questions of sanity. Both individuals were found not guilty by reason of insanity.
Today the Stanislaus County public defender handles 13,000 cases a year and represents the vast majority of all persons arrested in Stanislaus County. In addition to traditional legal representation, the public defender’s Client Support Program expands representation by focusing on the non-legal needs of each individual client to address root causes of system involvement. Through collaboration with their clients, justice partners and communities, they are able to connect clients to services such as mental health and substance use disorder treatment, employment and housing services, education and post-conviction relief. This holistic representation provides a path to future success while reducing recidivism and creating a healthier, safer community.
On this 60th anniversary of the Gideon decision, I am reminded of all the injustices that were avoided by the Supreme Court’s ruling and the untold number of individuals whose lives have been transformed by our criminal legal system. I am grateful for the public defense community and those who work tirelessly to serve their clients and our community while defending the Constitution and ensuring justice for all.
Jennifer Jennison, who has represented people in Stanislaus County since 1998, became Public Defender in October 2021.