“Lawyers in criminal courts are necessities, not luxuries”

Library recognizes 50th Anniversary of Gideon v. Wainwright with exhibit, film screening, research guide

Fifty years ago, on Monday, March 18, 1963, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously overruled its own 1942 decision in Betts v. Brady. The Court mandated that states must provide lawyers for persons who are facing serious criminal charges, and who cannot afford counsel. Gideon v. Wainwright was a reflection of the broad awareness toward poverty at the time (President Johnson declared the War on Poverty in 1964), paving the way for the establishment -and improvement of — public defender structures and systems in all U.S. states. The case had broad constitutional implications, and represented a victory for the position that the rights enumerated in the Bill of Rights were applicable to the states under the Fourteenth Amendment. One of the leading advocates of that position was Justice Hugo Black, who wrote the option of the Court. “Any person haled into court, who is too poor to hire a lawyer, cannot be assured a fair trial unless counsel is provided for him…lawyers in criminal courts are necessities, not luxuries.” 

In recognition of this significant anniversary, Georgetown Law Library is featuring an exhibition about the case. In addition, we will screen Gideon’s Trumpet tonight, kicking off the Equal Justice Film Festival, and will also launch an indigent defense research guide.

The exhibit in the atrium of the E.B. Williams Law Library tells the story of Gideon v. Wainwright based on materials from the National Equal Justice Library’s collections, including the Gideon’s Trumpet script and stills collection, and other items. The 1980 TV movie Gideon’s Trumpet was based on Anthony Lewis’ book with the same title, which was initially published in 1964. The movie followed the book closely, but the director also took some artistic freedoms. Photographs in the exhibit, for example, contrast the 1963 Warren Court with the Hollywood Supreme Court. Sam Jaffe, representing Felix Frankfurter, remained on the Hollywood court, while in fact he had already resigned from the Supreme Court. As one of the supporters of Betts v. Brady, he was left on the Hollywood court to represent the opinion skeptical of overturning the 1942 decision.

The movie ends with Gideon’s acquittal after a second trial, where he was represented by an attorney (Fred Turner). But what happened after the happy ending? “It’s fair to say that all of the hopes that we had have not been fulfilled,” said Abe Krash, a Georgetown Law faculty member who worked on Abe Fortas defense team for Clarence Gideon, in an NEJL oral history interview. Later this spring, the library will continue its Gideon anniversary programs, and will be highlighting the General Charles L. Decker/NLADA collection in another exhibit, which will address some of the challenges of implementing and sustaining Gideon’s mandate following the 1963 decision.

In addition to the oral history with Abe Krash, the NEJL collections include oral history interviews with Bruce Jacob, who argued against Gideon on behalf of the State of Florida as a young Assistant Attorney General, and with Anthony Lewis, the author of Gideon’s Trumpet (1964), who followed the case as a reporter. Full videos and transcripts of the interviews can be accessed at: http://www.law.georgetown.edu/library/collections/nejl/gideon/index.cfm.

Please join us for the screening of Gideon’s Trumpet tonight: http://www.law.georgetown.edu/library/about/125/filmfestival.cfm

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