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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of a landmark Supreme Court ruling. That ruling came out of the case of a man named Clarence Earl Gideon. In the early 1960s, he was convicted of breaking and entering by a court in Panama City, Florida. Clarence Gideon was sentenced to five years in jail after defending himself. He appealed with a handwritten note that made it up to the highest court in the land, where he was represented, then, by Abe Fortas.

Here's part of what Fortas explained to justices about the earlier trial.

ABE FORTAS: The court asked Clarence Earl Gideon if he was ready to proceed; he said he was not. He said he was not, because he was without funds and without counsel.

MONTAGNE: The Supreme Court ruled that defendants have the right to a lawyer even if they can't afford one.

NPR's Carrie Johnson looks at how the promise of that decision is faring a half century later.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: A few months after the High Court's Gideon ruling in March 1963, a young lawyer named Norman Lefstein started working for poor criminal defendants in Washington D.C.

NORMAN LEFSTEIN: It is a vital constitutional right. It distinguishes us as a country. I happen to believe that the quality of justice in our courts says a lot about the kind of society we are.

JOHNSON: Lefstein devoted his career to the idea that people facing jail or prison time need lawyers. But he's troubled by what he sees and hears today. Like a call he got from a defense lawyer for poor people in a Northeastern state.

LEFSTEIN: In my judgment, his caseload was absurd. I mean just try to imagine simultaneously representing, competently, over 300 clients. And he was in an impossible situation.

JOHNSON: Those caseloads can have some pretty bad consequences.

ERICA HASHIMOTO: There are a lot of stories of what are called meet-them-and-plead-them lawyers. Lawyers who show up at the courthouse and represent the defendant for about five minutes, where they tell the client, you have to plead guilty.

JOHNSON: Erica Hashimoto is a law professor at the University of Georgia. Before that, she was a federal public defender. Those programs designed for the federal courts and paid for with federal money, generally work much better than the patchwork of state defense systems. But now, with across the board federal budget cuts and a $38 million shortfall, even those federal public defenders are taking a beating. Some are facing furloughs of up to a month.

Scott Burns, who speaks for thousands of prosecutors at the National District Attorneys Association, says the situation is not as bad as defense lawyers make it seem.

SCOTT BURNS: I think it's a case to celebrate. I, too, have heard, you know, the defense bar and others hanging black crepe over this, and trying to use it for purposes of saying we have a long way to go. But, you know, Gideon in 1962 was denied counsel by a judge in a felony case and was sentenced to five years in prison. That would not happen today.

JOHNSON: Erica Hashimoto, the law professor who studies state defense systems, says she's not so sure. 18 states leave funding for indigent defense to their counties, including big states like California, Illinois, New York and Pennsylvania.

HASHIMOTO: We know that felony defendants in urban areas for the most part are represented by counsel. We don't know the same about felony defendants in rural areas and we have virtually no information on misdemeanor defendants.

JOHNSON: Nobody collects that information. So Hashimoto says nobody can say whether thousands of defendants are getting their rights under Gideon.

HASHIMOTO: If a criminal defendant does not have a lawyer, every single other right guaranteed by the Constitution is at risk of being violated.

JOHNSON: And news reports confirm evidence is piling up that the criminal justice system can make tragic mistakes. Lawyers for the poor say something needs to change. And in central Texas, they're trying a new experiment. It would let poor defendants choose from a slate of lawyers paid for by the government.

Jim Bethke runs that state's Indigent Defense Commission. Bethke talked about the idea at the Heritage Foundation in Washington this week.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

JIM BETHKE: Allow the person who has the most at stake to go ahead and choose his or her lawyer. Let's see if the free market can help improve the delivery of indigent defense services.

JOHNSON: It could take some time to figure out whether that experiment works. In the meantime, lawyers say, something needs to be done to help balance those scales of justice.

Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington.

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