50 years after the landmark case Gideon v. Wainwright, the promise of public defense for every defendant who can't afford one still remains unfullfilled.
In Montana, the Office of the Public Defender is a vast improvement over Montana's old county-by-county indigent defense, but it remains underfunded. The settlement in our lawsuit against the State of Montana and various counties challenging the inadequacies of the old county-run public defender system (White v. Martz) led to the creation of a statewide public defender system that embodied the ideals for providing indigent defense. But the best system in paper still requires diligent oversight and enough funding for it to work.
The agency is making great strides against difficult odds: a sharp increase in caseloads coupled with an agency budget that was underfunded from the start. Without the necessary funding it will be impossible for it to live up to our state's constitutional obligation to provide effective assistance of counsel.
Gideon: After 50 years, still a promise unfullfilled
Many of us take for granted the right explained in the Miranda warning we repeatedly hear on TV cop shows -- "If you can't afford an attorney, one will be appointed to you." But the reality is the guarantee of a public defender wasn't a reality until 1963. And today it remains a promise unfullfilled.
Clarence Gideon was arrested in 1961, accused of burglarizing a Florida pool hall. Too poor to afford an attorney, Gideon asked the judge in his case to appoint one to him but was told that Florida only did that when the death penalty was in play. Forced to defend himself, Gideon was sentenced to five years in prison.
Writing with pencil on prison stationery, Gideon wrote to the U.S. Supreme Court, asking for help because his Sixth Amendment rights had been violated. The Court agreed.
In the Gideon V. Wainwright decision, Justice Hugo Black wrote "In our adversary system of criminal justice," writes Justice Hugo Black, "any person hauled into court, who is too poor to hire a lawyer, cannot be assured a fair trial unless counsel is provided for him. This seems to us to be an obvious truth.... Lawyers in criminal courts are necessities, not luxuries... Legal representation is essential to a fair trial. The right of one charged with crime to counsel may not be deemed fundamental in some countries. But it is in ours."
About 2,000 people convicted in Florida alone were freed as a result of the Gideon decision. Gideon himself was not freed; instead, he got a new trial. His court-appointed attorney picked apart the case against him, which was essentially just one eye-witness account which was completely discredited. He was acquitted.
Today public defense is routinely given to poor defendants, but in many, if not most, places, that defense remains inadequate. Public defender offices across the country, including in Montana, are chronically underfunded -- especially compared to prosecutors' offices. The ACLU is dedicated to correcting this problem.
Why Public Defense Matters in Montana
  • Every Montanan has a right to a fair trial with an attorney who has the ability to defend his rights.
  • Montana’s public defenders are representing more defendants than is recommended by the American Bar Association – the 125 threshold is routinely being exceeded in virtually every region of the system. Increased funding for public defense will bring Montana more in line with ABA recommendations, decrease staff turnover and increase productivity.
  • Montana’s public defenders do not have the same access to investigators and expert witnesses that is provided to prosecutors.
  • If adequate counsel is not provided to poor defendants, individual liberty goes from being a right to a commodity available only to those who can afford it. There should not be two tiers of justice- one for those of means and one for those without.
  • Delays cause those accused – but not yet convicted – of a crime to languish in jail, depriving them of their liberty and the ability to earn a wage and care for their families.·
Like the scales of justice, our courts must be properly balanced to operate efficiently. Underfunding the Office of the Public Defender wastes taxpayer dollars by delaying hearings and trials.
  • When an overburdened public defender has not had a chance to meet with her client or work on the case, hearings are postponed – often at the last minute – wasting the time of prosecutors and judges, law enforcement and witnesses and costing all of us money.
  • Delays also cause these same defendants to spend more time in jail, overcrowding those facilities burdening county taxpayers for additional money to safely house them.

Victims deserve timely and correct justice.

  • Delays caused by an overburdened Office of the Public Defender cause victims emotional suffering as they wait for justice. Montana is among the leaders the nationally in jail suicides.
  • Inadequate counsel and inadequate resources for public defenders can result in the wrong person being convicted.
  • No one wins when cases are slow to come to court and the results of trials are in question.
Public Defense in Montana
Gideon v. Wainwright overview and oral arguments Defending Gideon - 30-minute documentary from The Constitution Project
National Resources