In June 1961, an itinerate drifter named Clarence Earl Gideon was charged with breaking into a pool room in Bay Harbor, Fla., and stealing $5 in change and a few bottles of beer and soda. He was unable to afford counsel to represent him and, when he appeared before the trial judge on the day set for trial, he told the judge that he was not ready for trial. The following colloquy ensued:

Court: Why aren’t you ready?

Defendant: I have no Counsel.

Court: Why do you not have Counsel? Did you not know your case was set for trial today?

Defendant: Yes, sir, I knew that it was set for trial today.

Court: Why, then, did you not secure Counsel and be prepared to go to trial?

Defendant: Your Honor … I request this Court to appoint Counsel to represent me in this trial.

Court: Mr. Gideon, I am sorry, but I cannot appoint Counsel to represent you in this case. Under the laws of the state of Florida, the only time the Court can appoint Counsel to represent a Defendant is when that person is charged with a capital offense.

Defendant: The United States Supreme Court says I am entitled to be represented by Counsel.

Court: Let the record show that the Defendant has asked the Court to appoint Counsel to represent him.

The trial judge denied Gideon’s request for appointed counsel and Gideon represented himself. He was convicted and sentenced to five years in prison. He appealed the sentence and subsequently filed a request for a writ of habeas corpus with the Florida Supreme Court, arguing that the U.S. Constitution’s Sixth Amendment mandated that he should have received the assistance of counsel at trial, without charge. The Florida Supreme Court denied his request for issuance of the habeas writ and Gideon appealed this decision to the U.S. Supreme Court, filing his appeal in handwritten pleadings.

Gideon was wrong when he told the Florida trial judge that the "United States Supreme Court says I am entitled to be represented by Counsel." The court’s precedents in place at that time only required the appointment of counsel in capital cases, as the trial judge told Gideon in the colloquy. Yet, as every lawyer, law student and most laypeople know today, the U.S. Supreme Court took his appeal and, in a unanimous opinion, changed the face of criminal procedure in most jurisdictions and international courts throughout the world. It held that all indigent defendants charged with serious crime are entitled to counsel, without cost, if they are unable to afford to hire a lawyer. On retrial, Gideon was represented by appointed counsel and he was acquitted by a jury after less than one hour of deliberations.

Today we celebrate the 50th anniversary of Gideon v. Wainwright, 372 U.S. 335 (1963). It is probably the U.S. Supreme Court’s most important decision in the criminal procedure realm. Along with the Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination and the Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable searches and seizures, our lay citizens take the right announced in Gideon to be one of the bedrock aspects of citizenship or residency in this country. Justice Hugo Black famously stated in an opinion, "Lawyers in criminal courts are necessities, not luxuries." Yet, as a good number of commentators and editorialists have recently observed, the right, hallowed in Gideon and a number of subsequent U.S. Supreme Court decisions, has become chimerical. In response to Gideon, New Jersey, like many other states, established an Office of the Public Defender and systems for the appointment of private counsel in criminal cases, seeking to discharge the state’s constitutional obligation. It is now common knowledge that the public defender’s office in this state, and in most other states, is woefully underfunded and understaffed, with huge case-loads that prevent even the best of lawyers from giving their cases the time and attention they deserve. A 2011 Justice Policy Institute study found that, for every dollar spent on indigent defense, $14 is spent on mechanisms designed to incarcerate prisoners. In 2007, the nationwide caseload average in state public defender’s offices was a dreadful 352 cases per lawyer. These offices are so inadequately underfunded that they simply do not have the ability anymore "to attract and compensate good lawyers as well as pay for experts and investigators."

"When defenders do not have access to sufficient resources, they may be unable to interview key witnesses, collect or test physical evidence, or generally prepare and provide quality defense for their client, resulting in poorer outcomes for the client," the study found.

This was similar to the conclusion reached in a series of studies conducted over the last decade, including a 2004 ABA-funded study titled "Gideon‘s Broken Promise: America’s Continuing Quest for Equal Justice" and a 2009 study titled "Justice Denied: America’s Continuing Neglect of Our Constitutional Right to Counsel," published by the National Right to Counsel Committee and the Constitution Project. There is now a veritable chorus of complaints about the state of affairs in the world of indigent defense.

On this 50th anniversary of one of the most important jurisprudential events in our constitutional history, we urge our lawmakers and executive policy-makers to wake up and smell the coffee. Justice is the essence of good government. We must provide it.