Our Constitution is the founding contract of our collective interests, establishing the core tenets of a free society and creating a government whose authority and power is vested upon it by its citizens. Of all the powers we give over to our government under this unique social contract, the authority to punish us for our crimes is the greatest and most fearsome. We entrust to our government the administration of our judicial systems in exchange for its promise to guarantee equal justice before the law — assuring victims, the accused and the general public that resulting verdicts are fair, correct, swift and final.
Our justice systems are far too complex for most people to navigate without help — let alone those who too often are in need of public defender services: the under-educated, inarticulate, the mentally ill, the developmentally delayed, and children. In the case of Gideon v. Wainwright, the United States Supreme Court concluded: “reason and reflection require us to recognize that, in our adversary system of criminal justice, 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.” Declaring it an “obvious truth” that “lawyers in criminal courts are necessities, not luxuries,” the Court ruled that states must provide counsel to indigent defendants in felony cases.
The Right to Counsel
On March 25, 1931, a fight broke out between a group of poor white and black youths aboard a freight train bound for Memphis, Tennessee via Huntsville, Alabama. Outnumbered, all but one of the white young men was thrown off the train a short distance over the Alabama line, where they promptly alerted local law enforcement.
On June 3, 1961, someone broke into a Panama City, Florida pool hall and stole alcohol and some change from a cigarette machine and a juke box. Clarence Earl Gideon, a fifty-one-year-old drifter, was charged with a felony -- breaking and entering the pool hall with the intent to commit a misdemeanor.
Jon Richard Argersinger was charged in a Florida state court with carrying a concealed weapon, a misdemeanor offense punishable by imprisonment up to 6 months and a $1,000 fine. He could not afford his own attorney, but was not provided one by the trial court. Instead, he had to represent himself at the bench trial where he was convicted and then sentenced to 90 days in jail. His case went to the Florida Supreme Court, where he said he had been deprived of his right to counsel and was not able to properly represent himself without a lawyer.
Delivery of Public Defense Services
Mississippi has 82 counties and a statewide population estimated in 2009 at roughly 2.95 million. The felony trial courts are structured through 22 Circuit Court districts, with each comprising multiple counties. As the NAACP-LDF so succinctly stated, with the exception of death penalty cases and felony appeals (since 2005), “the State of Mississippi does not contribute one dollar towards the representation of poor defendants. Instead, it requires counties to shoulder the full obligation of providing lawyers for the poor.”
From watching crime shows on television, we would all have the impression that a prosecutor stands on one side and a public defender stands on the other in every case, giving the appearance that their roles are exact mirror images of each other. But this is not true, for several reasons.