Today people across the nation celebrate the 50th anniversary of the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision in Gideon v. Wainwright, which upheld the Sixth Amendment right of poor criminal defendants to have a court-appointed attorney. But the celebration will be muted.

Who was Clarence Gideon and how did he change the system for poor defendants? Find out in this 1-minute "Your Constitutional Rights" podcast.


Public defense systems across the country remain severely underfunded, including Montana’s statewide system. Today the ACLU of Montana and advocates of public defense will hold a noon press conference in Room 35o of the Montana Capitol to talk about these issues, which are scheduled to be debated Tuesday by the Legislature.

Gideon's promise in unfulfilled in Montana, explains ACLU of Montana Executive Director Scott Crichton in a guest editorial which ran this weekend in papers across the state.

Montana Public defenders are routinely saddled with caseloads far exceeding American Bar Association guidelines, don’t have access to investigators and expert witnesses that they need, and are paid far less than attorneys in other state departments. Together these circumstances lead to high turnover in the Office of the Public Defender and inadequate representation of our state’s poor defendants.

These problems affect Montana’s entire criminal justice system. When an overburdened public defender has not had a chance to meet with her client or to work on a case, hearings are postponed – often at the last minute – wasting the time of prosecutors, judges, law enforcement and witnesses, costing us all. Delays cause these same defendants to spend more time in jail, overcrowding facilities and costing counties more money. These same problems delay justice for victims. No one wins when cases are slow to be resolved.

As the Supreme Court ruled in Clarence Gideon’s case 50 years ago, every person has a right to a fair trial with an attorney able to defend his rights. If adequate counsel is not provided to poor defendants, individual liberty goes from being a right to being a commodity available to only those who can afford it.

Photo Courtesy of the Florida Department of Corrections