By Sean R. Berry
Today marks the 50th anniversary of Gideon v. Wainwright, the landmark Supreme Court decision that determined every person charged with a serious offense has a constitutional right to an attorney at state expense if he or she cannot afford one.
Justice Hugo Black, in delivering the opinion of the Court, stated that it “seems to us to be an obvious truth … that in our adversary system of criminal justice, any person haled into court, who is too poor to hire a lawyer, cannot be assured a fair trial unless counsel is provided to him.”
Former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Warren Burger once compared the criminal justice system to a three-legged stool, consisting of judges, prosecutors and defense lawyers. We know that when any leg of the stool is not adequately supported, the fair administration of justice in our courts is jeopardized.
The Supreme Court’s recognition that “lawyers in criminal courts are necessities, not luxuries,” and its guarantee of the right to counsel in the state criminal process, have had a profound impact on the operation and aspirations of the American criminal justice system.
The ideals articulated in Gideon v. Wainwright are fundamental to the values of the Department of Justice and the Federal Public Defender’s Office. The integrity of our criminal justice system, and our faith in it, depends on effective representation for both the prosecution and defense.
The goals of those who represent our federal, state, and local governments and the goals of those who represent the accused are not at odds.
Our system of justice is adversarial, but the prosecutor is a unique adversary. As the Supreme Court acknowledged many years ago, prosecutors are representatives “not of an ordinary party to a controversy, but of a sovereignty whose obligation to govern impartially is as compelling as its obligation to govern at all; and whose interest, therefore, in a criminal prosecution is not that it shall win a case, but that justice shall be done.” — Berger v. United States.
Justice is done when both sides are effectively represented by counsel.
On this 50th anniversary of Gideon v. Wainwright, all Americans, including prosecutors and criminal defense lawyers, should be proud of our criminal justice system. Gideon v. Wainwright is just one of the reasons our criminal justice system provides “justice for all” as celebrated in our Pledge of Allegiance.
l Sean R. Berry is the Acting United States Attorney for the Northern District of Iowa, based in Cedar Rapids, and has been a prosecutor for 24 years. Comments: Peter.Deegan@usdoj.gov