On this day in 1963, the U.S. Supreme Court offered a sweeping affirmation of the constitutional right to counsel by requiring states to provide free legal representation to poor people accused of serious criminal offenses, State Bar President Seymour W. James, Jr. said today.

Today marks the 50th anniversary of the Gideon v. Wainwright decision, which opened the doors for individuals charged with criminal offenses in state courts to secure professional legal assistance, regardless of their economic status.

"Prior to this decision, many individuals were being deprived of their constitutional right to a fair trial simply because they were unable to afford a lawyer," said James (The Legal Aid Society in New York City). "The Court found that a fair trial required counsel for the defendant, that inability to pay an attorney was no justification for states to deny an individual a fair trial, and that under the Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution legal counsel must be provided by the state."

The New York State Bar Association joins other advocates of the poor in recognizing the vital importance of this ruling and in supporting sufficient funding to ensure that this right is protected.

"We urge our representatives in government, on the 50th anniversary of this historic decision, to fulfill the promise of Gideon v. Wainwright by ensuring that legal services for the poor receive adequate financial support," James said. "Government should use this milestone to rededicate itself to protecting the poor by making sure all criminal defendants unable to retain counsel receive effective representation."

To mark the anniversary, James was to appear today at a press conference in Albany sponsored by the New York State Defenders Association (NYSDA). Later today, he was to participate in a panel discussion at the New York County Lawyers' Association (NYCLA) headquarters in New York City.

State Bar Promotes Gideon Through Action

The State Bar has worked tirelessly to help the indigent through its legislative efforts and the work of its Committee to Ensure Quality of Mandated Representation.

Funding of legal programs for the poor in criminal and civil matters long has been a top legislative priority for the New York State Bar Association.

Those priorities have included seeking greater funding for the state Office of Indigent Legal Services. The office, through its oversight and funding, helps local governments and indigent legal services providers ensure effective assistance of counsel to those who cannot afford it.
In 2005, the Association addressed the fractured nature of indigent representation across the state by developing basic minimum standards for attorneys who represent low-income clients in criminal cases.

These standards are designed to help ensure that clients receive competent legal representation. These uniform standards have formed the foundation of a statewide model, and the Association is working to make them mandatory. In 2012, the Office of Indigent Legal Services referenced new State Bar standards involving the resolution of conflicts of interest.

The Association also has developed a model program for resource sharing that local governments can use to ensure consistent representation from county to county. The program, developed by the State Bar last year, encourages cooperation among large and small counties in the area of appeals, support services, training and assigned counsel.

The State Bar further helps ensure competent, consistent representation by offering a free biennial training program for attorneys who represent indigent clients.

About Gideon v. Wainwright

In 1961, 50-year-old Clarence Earl Gideon was accused of stealing money and liquor from a Florida pool hall. At his trial, he asked the judge to appoint an attorney to represent him, but the judge denied the request because Florida only provided attorneys for indigent defendants in capital cases. With no other recourse, Gideon defended himself at trial. He was convicted of a felony and sentenced to five years in prison.

While in prison, he educated himself about his right to counsel, and appealed to the Supreme Court in a five-page petition he wrote longhand in pencil on prison stationery. The Court accepted his case, and two years later, on March 18, 1963, it upheld his right to counsel based on the Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Gideon won a retrial and was found not guilty of the charge. He was released after serving two years of his sentence.

As an immediate result of the decision, 2,000 Florida inmates convicted without counsel were released from prison. The decision subsequently led to the vast expansion of legal aid and public defender programs through out the country. These programs have prevented tens of thousands of poor individuals from being wrongfully convicted of crimes because they lacked effective legal representation.

The New York State Bar Association, with 76,000 members, is the largest voluntary state bar association in the country. It was founded in 1876.


Contact: Mark Mahoney
Associate Director, Media Services and Public Affairs