Citing both Robert F. Kennedy and Clarence Earl Gideon, United States Attorney General Eric Holder candidly acknowledged Friday in a speech at the Justice Department that the nation's judges, lawyers, and politicians have broadly failed to meet their constitutional obligation to provide America's poorest citizens with competent legal representation in criminal cases.
Framing the issue as a "moral calling" that has gone largely unanswered by the rich and powerful, Holder urged legal and political stakeholders in Washington and elsewhere to "stand up for" basic ideals of justice by "guaranteeing that every person in this country can access quality legal representation any time they come before the criminal justice system."
Holder's remarks came as he and other legal and political dignitaries marked the 50th anniversary of the Supreme Court's landmark decision in Gideon v. Wainwright, decided March 18, 1963, in which the justices unanimously declared that no citizen could get a fair trial in our criminal justice system without access to a competent lawyer. From the speech:
In the decades since this remarkable case -- and Gideon's retrial, at which he was found not guilty -- public defender systems have been established in some states and strengthened in others. Additional court actions have expanded the right to counsel in juvenile and certain misdemeanor cases. And our nation has made significant strides in fulfilling the promise of Gideon -- and ensuring quality representation for more of those who need it.