Sen. Leahy Introduces Bill to Uphold the Promise of Gideon v. Wainright Ruling

This week marks the 50th anniversary of Gideon v. Wainwright, the landmark Supreme Court decision establishing that under the Constitution states are required to provide a lawyer to criminally charged defendants who cannot otherwise afford one.

While the Gideon ruling is rightfully celebrated as an important legal victory, there is a definite need to ensure that the rights it established are realized in practice. As Sen. Patrick Leahy, D. Vt., said while introducing Gideon’s Promise Act of 2013, “Too many states still lack adequate programs for providing effective representation.”

This legislation will require states to use existing federal funds to improve the administration of criminal justice in the most comprehensive, strategic way. It would address issues such as adequate compensation for and access to competent public defenders. States would have to consult the U.S. attorney general and local governments and devise a plan that meets the expectations of the Department of Justice.

The Gideon’s Promise Act will hold states accountable for providing counsel to criminal defendants, 80 percent of whom cannot afford a lawyer. Emphasizing the importance of fair representation, Leahy said that “incompetent counsel can result not only in needless and time-consuming appeals but, far more importantly, can lead to wrongful convictions and overall distrust in the criminal process.

The Leadership Conference looks forward to working with Congress, the criminal justice reform movement, and indigent defense community to fulfill the promise of Gideon.