So You Want to Learn More About the Gideon Case?

A guide to the books and movies that can help you understand one of the Supreme Court's most important, and most neglected, rulings: the one that secured the right to counsel for indigent defendants.

The accompanying piece about the legacy of Gideon v. Wainwright is long -- probably longer than my dear editors would have liked -- but in many important ways it is not long enough. There is a great deal of relevant, interesting material worthy of a closer look that I did not include in my take on the 50th anniversary of the right to counsel. Here are some resources you should check out if you want to know more about this vital topic:

1. You simply have to start with Gideon's Trumpet, published in 1964 by Anthony Lewis, then and for many years afterward the New York Times' Supreme Court reporter. The simple book is Lewis' masterwork, in my opinion, and one of the finest works about American law ever written. You can read it in less than a day; and you should; and if you do, you'll be rewarded. Lewis won the 1963 Pulitzer Prize for his brilliant reporting on the Supreme Court. Forty years later, in the Times, he explained the Gideon decision's continuing relevance in a time of terrorism. And 20 years ago, in 1993, he gave this fascinating interview to Victor Germiniani as part of the National Equal Justice Library Oral History Collection at the Georgetown University Law Library.

2. After you've read Lewis' account of the famous case, you can easily find other perspectives online. For example, Bruce Jacob, who in 1963 was the young state attorney arguing against Gideon at the Supreme Court, has written several enlightening accounts of the case and it's aftermath. He is today dean emeritus and a professor of law at Stetson University College of Law. Last year, for example, in Champion magazine, he wrote "Remembering Gideon's Lawyers." And 10 years ago, he wrote a good article about the case for the Stetson Law Review. If nothing else, do yourself a favor and read Jacobs' account of what it was like to be a lawyer on the losing end of that court.

3. There is also a very good new book on the topic, an easy weekend read titled Chasing Gideon, The Elusive Quest for Poor People's Justice, by Karen Houppert. "By justice," Houppert asks:

do we mean that we will pay lip service to the notion that everyone has a lawyer to represent them in court? That we will provide a warm body in a suit and tie to stand next to a defendant? Or do we mean to equate justice with fairness -- and actually provide folks who are accused of crimes with meaningful representation? Are we, in fact, committed to a level playing field, the adversarial system of justice in which both sides are properly armed to argue and from which truth emerges?

4. There are two recent, and excellent, documentaries that are worth your time, as well as an old made-for-television movie you might try to see sometime. The film, starring an aged Henry Fonda as Gideon, first aired in 1980 and does its best to be both accurate and interesting. Here's a clip:

More suited to you in all likelihood is Defending Gideon, a documentary film jointly produced by the law firm of Arnold & Porter and the Constitution Project. It will premiere on March 18, and you should check it out when it does. (The law firm has a long tradition of pro bono service -- and a direct connection to the Gideon case in the form of Abe Fortas, one of the founders of the firm, who represented Gideon on appeal before the Supreme Court.) Here is a clip:

Next, make sure you don't miss Gideon's Army, which won honors at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year, when it airs on HBO this summer. It's a heartbreaking piece of work about young public defenders drowning in a tide of work on behalf of poor clients. It is directed by Dawn Porter, a successful litigator at a huge firm who, to her eternal credit, left her lucrative practice to shine a light on this problem. Why do it? Porter says: "I made the film for people like me, who don't understand how it is possible that somebody innocent but poor could be in prison." Here's a brief clip:

5. The other side of the Gideon story is what became of the right to counsel after it. There is plenty of interesting scholarly work to explain how we got from the heights of Gideon to the depths of today, where a man can be convicted and sentenced to death in a case where his lawyer sleeps through portions of his trial. In my view, the leading legal scholar in this area is Stephen B. Bright, who is both a visiting lecturer at Yale Law School and president and senior counsel of the Southern Center for Human Rights in Atlanta. Here is something from Professor Bright on the topic from 2012. And here is a clip of him speaking just last month on the failed legacy of Gideon:

6. Finally, there is the political and legal question of what to do about all of this. It's not like some of the nation's legal leaders aren't thinking about the solution. In fact, they seem to have one. The problem is that the solution would require a level of foresight and political courage that is utterly lacking in Washington. The American Bar Association calls it National Indigent Defense Reform. The ABA also is pitching a federally funded Center for Indigent Defense Services that would help more poor people get competent representation. And this trenchant report, Community-Oriented Defense -- Start Now, published last year by the Brennan Center for Justice, is a must-read. Among its findings: "The average amount of time spent by a public defender at arraignment is often less than six minutes per case."