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Is the Right to Counsel Becoming a Myth? ….R.I.P. Anthony Lewis….Prepping for the Supremes & Prop 8, et al


Every week I get a couple of calls from gang members or former gang members who are locked up in county jail or state prison. These collect calls are a byproduct of my years of gang reporting. I spent so much time on the street talking with homeboys and homegirls that many of them came to view me as some kind of white lady auntie who always carried a notebook, an audio recorder and a camera.

Many of the guys I knew from way back when have long ago turned their lives around and have good jobs, kids, wives and houses of their own. But some have not, at least not with any consistency. So when they, or their brothers or nephews, get locked up, sometimes they call me.

I talked to such a guy earlier this week. He was someone I only vaguely know, but it was the weekend and I had a minute to two to spare so I took his call. We’ll call him David. He called because he’d just signed a plea bargain but wanted advice as to how he might get his 18-month sentence transferred to county jail, which would allow him to call and see his daughter for whom he had always been the sole caretaker, instead of doing the year and a half in state prison. I told him that his public defender would likely have the best luck in talking to the judge about such a change—and the judge would either cooperate or not.

No, he said. “I already asked my lawyer. He told me to go F— myself.” He paused awkwardly. “Sorry for cussing.”

“Um, he what??” I asked. “Why did he say that?”

“He told me the first day he saw me that I was going to take a deal, and that he didn’t want to hear any argument from me. He hardly even looked at my case.” David took the deal, he said. “And I’m okay with that. But all I wanted is for my lawyer to ask the judge if I could do my time here, where I could make phone calls and get visits. If I go to prison, they told me I’ll spend the whole 18 months in ‘reception,’ which means I won’t be allowed any phone calls or visits. And what is my little girl going to do? She’s six and she’s never had any other parent but me.”

Okay, tell me how this conversation when again,” I said.

“He told me to go F— myself,” David reiterated. “When I tried to explain, and I mean really nicely and respectfully, he said it again.”

Now, as I said earlier, I don’t really know David, thus I don’t know if some crucial part of his story is false, or exaggerated, or left out. But it had the odd ring of truth. He made no excuses for himself. He simply had this one anguished request, that the judge could grant—or not. Yet, David’s attorney, who would have lost nothing by making a quick pitch to the judge, instead told David to go screw himself. (After telling him he was taking a deal, regardless of whether he wanted to take a deal or not.)

I know many wonderful, wonderful public defenders and court appointed attorneys who do work a gazillion times past what they are every paid for, and who believe ardently in the principal that everyone deserves a competent defense. A lot of those PD’s cope with impossible caseloads, yet keep working like crazy, with great intelligence and compassion, to provide what their clients need. In fact, it’s public defenders’ associations that are fighting to make things better.

Yet, I’ve also seen public attorneys who do the absolute minimum, who actively loathe most of their clients whom they believe are scum who should just take what’s coming to them.

Which is not an attitude that you want in your attorney.

It sounded like David’s lawyer fell into the latter category.

I bring all this up as a very long introduction to this essay by Kevin Burke, a trial judge who is the immediate past president of the American Bar Association. Burke writes about the 50th anniversary of U.S. Supreme Court decision of Gideon v. Wainwright, in which the court ruled that defendant in a criminal case had a constitutional right to have an attorney, and if he or she could not afford one the government had an obligation to provide said attorney.

In his essay, Burke suggests that maybe our 50-year-old right to counsel has become more of myth than the principal the Supremes intended a half century ago with their unanimous ruling. Here’s are two clips from Burke’s essay:

…Today there are those who claim [Gideon] is all a mirage. The right to counsel they say is just “another lie we tell each other to hide the truth” about unequal justice in America. Andrew Cohen wrote this week, “for all the glory we heap upon Gideon, for all the preening we display about our fealty to the rule of law, the sad truth is that there is no universal right to counsel today. We know today which path our legal and political leaders chose. Instead of ensuring that the right to counsel kept pace with the explosion of criminal cases, the Supreme Court and the Congress (and state legislatures) allowed the right to be left by the side of the road.”

What happened that diminished the bright promise of Gideon? First, the reality was there was no appetite for anyone to fund the mandate or for courts to order adequate funding. Neither Fortas nor Krash (and perhaps Justice Black as well) foresaw the problems of financing the new right to counsel. Caseloads and inadequate representation stripped Hugo Black’s admonition of the importance of the right to counsel of its vitality. They did not foresee a criminal justice system dominated by plea bargaining. They did not nor could have at the time foreseen the collateral consequences that flow from a conviction today.


Every day in thousands of courtrooms across the nation, from trial courts that handle felony cases to limited jurisdiction justice of the peace courts, the right to counsel is violated. Judges conduct hearings in which people accused of crimes and children accused of delinquency appear without lawyers. Some are middle class and therefore not eligible for appointed lawyers. Many plead guilty without lawyers. Others plead guilty and are sentenced after learning about plea offers from lawyers they met moments before. They are afraid and intimidated by the courts. Innocent people plead guilty to get out of jail. Too many plead guilty with no idea that there are collateral consequences that could change their lives.

Read the rest here.

(NOTE: A hat tip to Doug Berman of Sentencing. Law and Policy who flagged Burke’s essay.)


Pulitzer Prize-winning legal columnist and author Anthony Lewis died on Monday.

His death was an odd bit of timing, since Lewis’s most enduring work is Gideon’s Trumpet, about the that very Supreme Court decision that gave Americans the right to have counsel.

There are lots of remembrances about how Lewis’s knowledge and his love of writing about the law made his legal reporting clear, elegant, and understandable. This one from the Atlantic’s Andrew Cohen is a good one. Here’s a representative clip:

…The headline of the [New York Times] obit says that Lewis “transformed” coverage of the United States Supreme Court, and he did. But he did much more than that. He transformed coverage of the broader beat of the law, and he inspired generations of writers (and lawyers and judges, for that matter) to try to better explain and translate legal jargon into phrases and concepts that laypeople could more easily understand.

Lewis’ masterwork, Gideon’s Trumpet, was a piece of art for precisely this reason — word by word, simple sentence by simple sentence, he deconstructed the Sixth Amendment’s right to a fair trial, and murky Supreme Court procedure, and state law, and the insular world of Washington law firms, and all the other satellite topics that revolved around that seminal case. Here is a representative passage:

The case of Gideon v. Wainwright is in part a testament to a single human being. Against all the odds of inertia and ignorance and fear of state power, Clarence Earl Gideon insisted that he had a right to a lawyer and kept on insisting all the way to the Supreme Court of the United States

His triumph there shows that the poorest and least powerful of men-– a convict with note even a friend to visit him in prison — can take his cause to the highest court in the land and bring about a fundamental change in the law.

But of course Gideon was not really alone; there were working for him forces in law and society larger than he could understand. His case was part of a current of history,and it will be read in that light by thousands of persons who will known no more about Clarence Earl Gideon than that he stood up in a Florida court and said: “The United States Supreme Court says I am entitled to be represented by counsel.”

For his work, in 1963, he won a Pulitzer Prize (his second, his first coming years earlier with his equally trenchant work covering the civil rights movement). Afterward, taking the longer view, Lewis wrote pointedly and poignantly for decades on the op-ed page of the Times, wrote excellent books like Make No Law (about the key first amendment case New York Times v. Sullivan), and contributed regularly to the New York Review of Books.

When given the chance over the years, I always tell young journalists and young lawyers to read everything Lewis has written, because his writing was always so clear, and so accessible, and such a good starting point for more involved research on any given legal topic….


A few stories for your reading pleasure:


David Siders at the Sacramento Bee reports that ” mayors of 25 California cities are urging the court to find the measure, Proposition 8, unconstitutional..”

Read more here:


For the moment, Toobin’s essay from the April 1 issue of the New Yorker isn’t hidden behind a paywall. Let’s hope it stays that way but, if you’re not a subscriber, you might want to read it now, just in case. It’s short, very smart and gives an interesting way in to what some of the arguments will be, and what is at stake.

Here are some clips:

In 2003, the Supreme Court decided that gay people could no longer be thrown in prison for having consensual sex. Specifically, Justice Anthony Kennedy’s opinion, in Lawrence v. Texas, declared that Texas’s anti-sodomy law “demeans the lives of homosexual persons” and violated the right to liberty guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment. But Kennedy was careful to describe the limits of the Court’s holding. He wrote that the case “does not involve whether the government must give formal recognition to any relationship that homosexual persons seek to enter.” In other words, in Kennedy’s telling, Lawrence v. Texas was not about same-sex marriage.

To which Justice Antonin Scalia responded, in a dissenting opinion, “Do not believe it.” He explained:

If moral disapprobation of homosexual conduct is “no legitimate state interest” for purposes of proscribing that conduct; and if, as the Court coos (casting aside all pretense of neutrality), “when sexuality finds overt expression in intimate conduct with another person, the conduct can be but one element in a personal bond that is more enduring,” what justification could there possibly be for denying the benefits of marriage to homosexual couples exercising “the liberty protected by the Constitution”?

What, indeed? A decade later, it’s clear that Scalia was right. Once a society decides that the law must treat a group of people equally in one area of life, it becomes harder—and, eventually, impossible—to justify discriminating against them in others. If gay people can’t be prosecuted for being gay, then they shouldn’t be fired for being gay, either. If they can’t be fired, then they shouldn’t be denied custody of children. And so on, to the issue of marriage.Each of these steps is incomplete under current law, as well as in the real world, but the direction they are taking is unmistakable. This week, we will begin to find out whether the Justices will impede or accelerate that process. But, at this point, not even the Supreme Court can reverse the march toward equality.

And then there’s this:

…It’s important that the Justices decide these two cases the right way.

It’s just not as important as it once seemed. When Theodore B. Olson and David Boies, the lead lawyers in the Prop 8 case, filed their lawsuit, in 2009, it appeared to many informed observers that they were taking a foolhardy risk. At the time, gay-rights organizations had been following a cautious, state-by-state approach, and it seemed that an adverse decision in a major federal lawsuit could set back the cause of same-sex marriage for a generation. But, whatever the Justices do, that’s not going to happen. The question about marriage equality for all Americans is not if it will pass but when. The country has changed, and it’s never going back to the way it was. Though the battles continue, the war is over.

Read the rest.

Photo from the Missouri Bar Association

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