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In Speech on Senate Floor, Durbin Honors the Work of Public Defenders Ahead of 60th Anniversary of Gideon v. Wainwright

WASHINGTON – In a speech on the Senate floor today, U.S. Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-IL), Chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, honored public defenders ahead of the 60th anniversary of the landmark Supreme Court decision in Gideon v. Wainwright, in which the Court held that the Sixth and Fourteenth Amendments guarantee a right of legal counsel to anyone accused of a crime.

“Behind the scenes of our nation’s courtrooms and jails, you’ll find some of our most dedicated public servants.  They are America’s public defense lawyers.  They work long hours for low pay, and even less attention and acclaim, to protect the most American ideal—equal justice under the law.  It’s thanks to their service that every single citizen in this country is guaranteed the right to legal counsel,” said Durbin.  “This Saturday, we have a chance to honor them.  It’s National Public Defender Day, and this year National Public Defender Day also marks a major milestone in legal history.  It’s the 60th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s decision in the landmark case Gideon v. Wainwright.”

During his speech, Durbin told the story of Clarence Gideon, who was arrested for a burglary in the summer of 1961 on no evidence beyond the word of a single witness.  When Mr. Gideon appeared in court, he told the judge he couldn’t afford a lawyer and asked to be appointed one.  But the judge denied his request.  He told Mr. Gideon that the court could only appoint a counsel to defendants facing the death penalty.  In other words, Mr. Gideon was denied his Sixth Amendment right to counsel—which has been enshrined in the U.S. Constitution since the Bill of Rights was adopted—because he wasn’t accused of a serious enough crime.  Mr. Gideon wrote a letter to the United States Supreme Court, and with that letter, he changed history.  The Supreme Court agreed to hear his case, and—finally—appointed him an attorney: future Supreme Court Justice Abe Fortas.

“Fast forward to March of 1963, the Court issued its decision.  All nine Justices ruled unanimously in favor of Mr. Gideon.  In the majority opinion, Justice Hugo Black said ‘lawyers in criminal courts are necessities, not luxuries.’  And he concluded that the ‘noble ideal… [of]… fair trials before impartial tribunals in which every defendant stands equal before the law … cannot be realized if the poor man charged with crime has to face his accusers without a lawyer to assist him.’”

Durbin continued, “In the six decades since Gideon, generations of public defenders have stepped up to assure that no one is denied their constitutional right to a legal counsel.  And for our most vulnerable neighbors in particular, public defenders are an indispensable protection.  They have protected the rights of low-income and indigent Americans.  They have helped defendants access resources and services to get their lives back on track.  And they worked day in and day out to secure sentences that are humane and proportional.  Moreover, public defenders provide a service to all of us by strengthening the integrity of our system of justice.”

Video of Durbin’s floor speech is available here.

Audio of Durbin’s floor speech is available here.

Footage of Durbin’s floor speech is available here for TV Stations.

Today, Durbin and U.S. Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ), Chair of the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Criminal Justice and Counterterrorism, introduced two bills to underscore the value of public defenders and provide them with greater funding and resources.  The Sentencing Commission Improvements Act adds an ex officio member to the United States Sentencing Commission who is a federal public defender, providing important perspective the Commission needs to develop fairer sentencing guidelines.  And the Quality Defense Act creates a grant program to help fund data collection, hiring, increased compensation, and loan assistance programs for public defenders.  This bill also directs the Justice Department to study and develop best practices and recommendations on appropriate public defender caseloads and levels of compensation.