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52 U. Louisville L. Rev. Online 7 (2013)
Gideon v. Wainwright and the Lack of Commitment to Justice by Judges, Legislatures, Executives and the Bar
Stephen B. Bright*

Gideon held that “fair trials before impartial tribunals in which every defendant stands equal before the law . . . cannot be realized if the poor man charged with crime has to face his accusers without a lawyer to assist him.” The Court also discussed equality before the law in another case decided on the same day as Gideon, March 18, 1963, reiterating a statement from a previous case that “there can be no equal justice” where the kind of justice a person gets “‘depends on the amount of money he has.’”

Fifty years later, everyone agrees that governments have failed to do what the Supreme Court said was constitutionally required in Gideon. Judges conduct hearings in which poor people accused of crimes and poor children charged with acts of delinquency appear without lawyers. Many plead guilty without lawyers. Others plead guilty and are sentenced after learning about plea offers from lawyers they met moments before and will never see again. Some courts handle an enormous volume of cases in assembly-line manner. Many courts are plea mills, courts of profit, not justice, that accept guilty pleas and impose fines without any inquiry into the ability of defendants to pay, setting them up for failure and return to jail, our modern day debtors’ prisons.


* President and Senior Counsel, Southern Center for Human Rights, Atlanta; visiting lecturer at Yale Law School and the University of Georgia School of Law. This essay draws upon his representation of poor people accused of crimes since 1976 and his observations of the criminal courts during that time. Parts of this article originally appeared in the June 2013 issue of The Yale Law Journal, published by the Yale Law Journal Company, Incorporated and it is reprinted with the permission of The Yale Law Journal. Stephen B. Bright & Sia M. Sanneh, Fifty Years of Defiance and Resistance After Gideon v. Wainwright, 122 Yale L.J. 2150 (2013).