Answering Gideon's Call Outside the Courtroom

By: Eva Bertone McGann, BJA NTTAC On March 18, 1963, the U.S. Supreme Court rendered a landmark decision that constituted a critical step forward in our nation’s relentless pursuit of equality and justice for all. The decision made in the case of Gideon v. Wainwright unanimously established the right to counsel for those who could not afford to hire an attorney. Fifty years later, professionals and leaders from across the criminal justice community honored this historical ruling by participating in events such as American University’s 50th Anniversary Symposium or the Department of Justice (DOJ) 50th Anniversary Celebration. Both of these events served as a testament and a reminder that, while much progress has been achieved since this revolutionary decision, the structure and mechanisms of our legal system still remain a work in progress. Commemorating the 50th anniversary of this case, American University's School of Public Affairs Justice Programs Office convened a day-long symposium, “Answering Gideon’s Call Outside the Courtroom: Policy Reform Strategies to Protect the Sixth Amendment Right to Counsel Across America.” Representatives from the Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA) National Training and Technical Assistance Center (NTTAC) team had the fortune of participating in this event with other federal and state leaders, policymakers, and jurists. During the symposium, the BJA NTTAC representatives and other attendees had the rare opportunity to hear firsthand the experience that Abe Krash, the partner from Arnold and Porter pictured below, had as the lead attorney preparing the brief in the case of Gideon v. Wainwright. Krash highlighted the specific challenges he confronted 50 years ago to set the foundation for the symposium’s thought leaders as they embarked upon problem-solving and developing an initial framework for an integrated policy reform agenda to make the right to counsel a reality. In his address during the DOJ 50th Anniversary Celebration of Gideon v. Wainwright, Attorney General Eric Holder also provided a reminder of the work that still remains to ultimately achieve the vision established 50 years ago. As he remarked, the observance served as “an important moment not merely to reflect on our past, but to plan for the future – and recommit ourselves to the ideals laid out in Justice Hugo Black’s historic opinion.” He went on to call attention to the shared responsibilities of all professionals from across the nation’s legal community to continue to uphold the legacy established by Gideon v. Wainwright, safeguard due process, and preserve the basic rights of every citizen. Attorney General Holder reaffirmed the DOJ’s commitment to advancing access to quality representation through the provision of assistance and support for cutting-edge research, highlighting some promising grant programs. For example, last year, BJA awarded $1.2 million in funding to four states – each of which has partnered with a research organization to track outcomes – through a grant program called “Answering Gideon’s Call.” Through a second “Answering Gideon’s Call” initiative, BJA will soon build upon this first initiative and award over $700,000 to a non-profit organization and its partners to support training and technical assistance (TTA) based on the American Bar Association's Ten Principles of a Public Defense Delivery System. Further, BJA NTTAC will commit a total of $90,000 for technical assistance to help several states meet their constitutional obligations to provide proficient representation for the poor. Both of these events bring to light the dedication of the criminal justice community to honor the legacy of Gideon and realize equal justice for all. In a time of unprecedented challenges, professionals from across the justice system are continuously being asked to achieve greater impact with fewer resources. It is a coordinated, collaborative effort, like that demonstrated at the day-long Gideon Symposium, that is necessary to identify opportunities to overcome these challenges and maximize impact. Even during times of tighter fiscal year budgets, one thing remains certain – the Justice Department and criminal justice practitioners must remain committed to the cause of Gideon because, as Attorney General Holder states, “today, more than ever before – prosecutors and defenders must come together to make the most of limited resources.” For more information regarding the events commemorating Gideon v. Wainwright or to read the full transcript of Attorney General Holder’s remarks, please click on the links below. To submit the work of your organization or jurisdiction for consideration to be featured in a future TTA Today blog post, please email Attorney General Eric Holder Speaks at the Justice Department's 50th Anniversary Celebration of the U.S. Supreme Court Decision in Gideon v. Wainwright American University 50th Anniversary of Gideon v. Wainwright Symposium