Gideon: Looking Back, Leaping Forward

by Zoë Root*

This March, the Right to Counsel National Campaign (R2C) has embraced the 55th anniversary of Gideon v. Wainwright as an opportunity to reflect on what quality public defense looks like, the impact it has on individual clients’ lives, and the work that needs to be done to fully realize the intent of the Gideon decision.

I spend a lot of time thinking about what is wrong with the criminal justice system. I do so unapologetically: it is both part of my job, and my personal belief that until we acknowledge our problems, we cannot solve them. One of the current challenges of the justice system that troubles me the most is the undermining of the Gideon decision in ways large and small across the country on a daily basis. Between crushing caseloads, late appointment of counsel, and counsel waivers, America’s public defense systems are in crisis.

However, in addition to believing in the importance of problem recognition, I also believe deeply in highlighting what is going well and the power of hope. So instead of focusing on the work that must be done to fix our nation’s public defender system, I am focusing this post on how this month of Gideon reflection has reinforced my hope for the future.

This month, public defense clients have given me hope. On March 20, I hosted R2C’s quarterly webinar during which Antione Tuckson told us what receiving effective public defense meant to him: “The compassion that [my public defender] showed, in seeing me as a human being, and not as a statistic or a number. . . fighting for me and representing me in the court system – it changed me.” Antione’s voice gives me hope. Antione reminds us that there are beautiful success stories of well-resourced, well-trained, and compassionate public defenders acting as not only defenders of the Constitution, but also defenders of human dignity. Antione’s voice, like the voices of so many impacted by the criminal justice system, is a reminder that effective public defense is literally life-changing.

This month, young people have given me hope. In addition to the work I do at the Justice Programs Office, I teach a course in the department of Justice, Law, and Criminology at American University on the criminal justice system. In recognition of the Gideon anniversary, I dedicated class time to discussing the state of public defense systems. My students stared at me in sheer disbelief. How can a right supported by both the Constitution and Supreme Court caselaw be so drastically and systematically eroded? Their disbelief gives me hope. Their lack of desensitization to the injustices of the criminal justice system, and their understanding of the urgency of reform, set them up to be powerful agents of change.

This month, public defenders have given me hope. On March 19, public defender offices across the country celebrated national Public Defense Day. My former colleagues at The Bronx Defenders set up a table in 30-degree weather outside the Bronx Hall of Justice to talk to the community about how incorporating immigration, housing, civil advocacy, family defense, social work, and investigation are all part of what it means to be a public defender. Their tireless dedication to defending all of their clients’ rights is a hopeful reminder of why Gideon was decided: we all deserve zealous advocacy, no matter how much money we have, and no matter what crime we have been charged with committing. Across the country, this very minute, there are thousands of public defenders protecting their clients’ access to housing, education, employment, and, of course, their liberty.

There is a lot of work to be done. But as we enter the 56th year of a post-Gideon America, I am filled with hope: we are armed with clients whose lives are the embodiment of the importance of the work, a generation of motivated and conscientious young people joining the workforce, and public defenders dedicated to standing by their clients’ sides no matter the stakes. In this, the 56th year of Gideon, the question of change is not if, but when.

Zoë Root is Senior Policy Counsel on the Right to Counsel National Campaign