50th Anniversary of Gideon v. Wainwright
By Buck Files
President, State Bar of Texas

In 2013, it seems ludicrous that there could ever have been an issue as to whether a citizen accused of a felony in a state court proceeding should have the right to the assistance of counsel, but that was not always the case.

I was a third year law student when the U.S. Supreme Court decided Gideon v. Wainwright. As I prepared for my bar examination, I reviewed Gideon and understood what it said; however, I did not understand what it meant. I had no concept of what it was to be indigent and to be a defendant in our criminal justice system without a lawyer or to be a lawyer representing an indigent defendant.

Clarence Earl Gideon, arrested and charged with a criminal offense, was indigent and forced to defend himself in court without the assistance of a lawyer. A jury found him guilty and sentenced him to five years in jail. Following the U.S. Supreme Court’s review of the case, Gideon was retried on the same offense with the assistance of a court-appointed attorney and was acquitted.

On March 18, 2013, many of us in Texas and throughout the nation will celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Gideon ruling, and for good reason. The U.S. Supreme Court held that the Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, providing that in all criminal prosecutions the accused shall enjoy the right to the assistance of counsel for his defense, is made obligatory on the states by the 14th Amendment, and that an indigent defendant in a criminal prosecution in a state court has the right to have counsel appointed for him.

At the State Bar of Texas, assuring all citizens equal access to justice has long been a part of our mission, and that includes continuing to focus on ways to advance efforts for indigent defense. The State Bar of Texas Committee for Legal Services to the Poor in Criminal Matters Standing Committee works with judges, prosecutors, criminal defense lawyers and other groups to determine whether indigent defendants are being properly served by our justice system. The committee has brought people together to address the state of indigent criminal defense.

In 2009, the State Bar supported the creation of the Office of Capital Writs, a state agency that represents people who have been sentenced to death in state post-conviction habeas corpus and related proceedings. The State Bar’s Legal Services Support Division and the Legal Services to the Poor in Criminal Matters Committee have been working to improve the system that provides legal representation to indigent people accused of crimes.

High school students in Texas are required to know about Gideon v. Wainwright in order to pass the TEKS test. The State Bar’s Law Related Education Department assists students and teachers with this task and with learning about other required landmark court cases through a web-based resource, Oyez, Oyez, Oh Yay! Civics Resources for Texas Students and Teachers, available at texasbar.com/civics.

The State Bar’s nationally-recognized continuing legal education program, TexasBarCLE, offers an advanced criminal law course, boot camp, and other resources to help lawyers learn everything they need to know to effectively represent their clients.

The State Bar of Texas also continues to work with other organizations, such as the Texas Indigent Defense Commission, Texas Access to Justice Commission and Texas Criminal Defense Lawyers Association to share existing research and further mutual goals in addressing the need for an improved indigent defense system.

Many Texas attorneys are helping bridge the indigent defense gap through their commitment to pro bono work, assisting those who otherwise could not afford a lawyer. Working together, we can ensure that everyone has equal access to justice.

Buck Files, a criminal defense lawyer from Tyler, is president of the State Bar of Texas.

A photo of Buck Files is available for download at www.texasbar.com/media.