The 60th Anniversary of Gideon v. Wainwright

20 Mar, 23

Dear Friends,

I wrote this op-ed in honor of the 60th anniversary of Gideon, a U.S. Supreme Court case that gave people the right to a defense lawyer in criminal cases, regardless of their ability to pay. I hope it will move you to recommit to creating the fair and just public defense system that Harris County deserves.

Imagine you’re charged with a crime you did not commit, put in a jail cell, and at the mercy of a legal system you can’t navigate. You can’t afford a lawyer to advise you. The prosecutor offers you a prompt disposition and lighter punishment if you’ll just plead guilty - and a harsher punishment if you don’t.

You know any conviction will have lifelong negative impacts. You want to prove your case but have no idea how that’s done. Because you can’t afford a lawyer, you’re more likely to face a conviction regardless of your innocence.

Would that feel like justice?

The promise of adequate representation is at the root of American ideals of liberty and justice.Everyone deserves equal protection under the law when their freedom is on the line. Justice can’t be contingent on money, race, or gender.

Sixty years ago, in Sixty years ago, in Sixty years ago, in Gideon v. Wainwright, a unanimous U.S. Supreme Court affirmed the promise of the Sixth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, a unanimous U.S. Supreme Court affirmed the promise of the Sixth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, a unanimous U.S. Supreme Court affirmed the promise of the Sixth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution: people have the right to a defense lawyer in criminal cases, regardless of their ability to pay. To do otherwise would be "offensive to the common and fundamental ideas of fairness."The landmark decision recognized that criminal court judges can’t deliver justice when people accused of crimes don’t have access to a lawyer and adequate representation.

Unfortunately, as we reflect on the 60th anniversary of Gideon, the ideals of equal protection and fundamental fairness for all people in our criminal courts remain merely aspirational in Harris County.

Despite some progress, Harris County’s indigent defense system still disproportionately relies on a broken appointed counsel system, where judges pick the lawyers for impoverished people in their courtroom. In addition to this inherent conflict of interest, an indigent defense system based on judicial appointments has few checks and balances on spending or quality control. The result is judges giving hundreds of cases and thousands of dollars to their favored lawyers without oversight.

Last year, some lawyers operated with caseloads three to five times more than state guidelines, which means they could only spend a few minutes on each case outside of time in court. One lawyer was appointed to 744 cases, and another to 606—not including private cases or cases appointed outside of Harris County. As the Houston Chronicle reported, one lawyer received over $1 million in taxpayer money for private appointments in Harris County. Eight lawyers received more than $400,000, and 100 received more than $200,000.

As Harris County continues to overpay overloaded private lawyers, we under-rely on public defenders. In 2022, private attorneys represented more than 80% of Harris County criminal cases in which someone could not afford to pay for a lawyer. Public defenders represented less than 20%.

Defense counsel serves as the final protector of due process and justice in our courtrooms, so when our system impedes the quality of indigent counsel, poor people are disproportionately subjected to unjustly losing their freedom. Public defenders better protect the rights of those presumed innocent because they have centralized systems in place with caseload limits, mentoring, training, supervision, investigative tools, and holistic services staff. These safeguards reduce the likelihood that clients will return to the criminal justice system and secure more just results for the accused, victims, and their families.

The facts speak for themselves. We have a moral obligation to make investments in systems that ensure all persons, regardless of their economic status, are treated equally under our law. It is our duty to ensure the words of our Constitution are not just mere words. On Gideon’s 60th anniversary, let’s recommit to moving the realities of justice in Harris County closer to the ideal. I hope my colleagues on Commissioners Court will join me in investing in a Harris County public defense system that ensures all people’s rights and liberties are equally protected and can be a model for the nation.


Rodney Ellis