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‘Gideon’ gave legal counsel to the poor

Fifty years ago the landmark U.S. Supreme Court Gideon vs. Wainwright decision guaranteed a state-paid lawyer for people facing prison time who can’t afford a private attorney.

The Minnesota public defender system has come a long way since then, but things were not as bad pre-Gideon as you might think — and the current condition of Minnesota’s public defender system is not as rosy as many believe.

Minnesota out front

Minnesota has a long history of trying to ensure a fair trial for the indigent.

The state led the nation in creating the right to counsel for indigent people accused of crimes, according to information from John Stuart, who heads the state’s public defender’s office.

Almost 100 years before Gideon vs. Wainwright established a federal constitutional right to counsel for indigent adults charged with felonies, the Minnesota Legislature passed a law requiring counsel for those facing charges punishable by death or a state prison term.

In 1917, adult defendants charged with gross misdemeanors also became eligible for counsel funded by the public.  Importantly, that same year the Legislature created a public defender’s office in counties with a population of 300,000 or more people.  

This system of representation depended upon appointed counsel. The county attorney had to certify that the proposed client could not afford an attorney. Judges had to appoint counsel one case at a time. Each county had to pay the bills for cases originating there.

Even when Gideon was pending, Minnesota played a role in the case: Stuart said the Florida attorney general at the time solicited all the state attorneys general to support his brief against the right to counsel.

Minnesota’s attorney general, Walter Mondale, not only refused, he organized 22 state AFG’s to write a brief supporting Gideon.

A desperate appeal

Some people are familiar with the Gideon case from the book and movie, Gideon’s Trumpet.

Clarence Earl Gideon was a 51-year-old Florida inmate who had been convicted of breaking into a pool hall in 1961. He had no money and had unsuccessfully sought the aid of a lawyer at his trial. He was convicted without an attorney and given a five-year prison sentence.

He took to the prison library and from there (perhaps with the help of a judge imprisoned on a murder charge) wrote his now-famous, five-page “pauper’s appeal.”

Gideon argued that his due process rights had been violated under the 14th Amendment, according to a story by Mark Walsh in this month’s ABA Journal.

The U.S. Supreme Court eventually agreed, unanimously, and handed down its Gideon decision on March 18, 1963.

The Gideon case had a big impact on Minnesota: It was the catalyst for today’s public defense system, which has been fine-tuned to cover misdemeanor charges.

 Today, state employees under the direction of the State Board of Public Defense (chaired by Detroit Lakes’ attorney David Stowman) provide public defense services to eligible adults and juveniles in all but Hennepin and Ramsey counties, which hire their own public defenders,   supported by state funds.

Hanging in there

Public defenders in Minnesota now handle about 155,000 cases a year, Stowman said. “We are the biggest users of the court system.”

They operate in 10 districts across the state and one appellate division that focuses exclusively on appeals cases. The seven-member public defense board hires chiefs for each district.

They are overseen by the Minnesota Public Defender’s Office, roughly comparable to the attorney general’s office.

The state’s public defender system has 485 attorneys on staff, about half of them part time, and 685 total employees, Stowman said.

In this area, there are full-time public defender offices in Moorhead, Fergus Falls, Crookston and Bemidji.

Most public defenders in Detroit Lakes and similar sized or smaller communities have their own businesses and also work part time as public defenders.

American Bar Association guidelines call for attorneys to handle no more than 400 misdemeanor cases, or 150 felony cases, a year.

The public defender caseload is now running at 600 to 700 misdemeanor cases per year, Stowman said.”

“We have about 58 percent of the lawyers we need in order to have our state meet ABA standards,” said Stuart, the head public defender. Public defenders are averaging about 250 felony cases a year.

“Most private practitioners would not take more than 50 (felony cases a year),” he said.

“It’s kind of big stuff when very important consequences could happen to a person’s life if you don’t get it right.”

In his 35 years in public defense, Stuart has seen the job become much more time consuming.

Where there used to be a 5-page complaint on an armed robbery there will now be 20 pages plus a 12-hour store surveillance disc and a CD with 4-5 hours of interrogation video.

One of his attorneys had a file with 14 such discs. “He’s wondering, ‘When do I get time to look at all this stuff?’” Stuart said.

Public defenders are now responsible for giving accurate advice on immigration matters. Public defenders near Worthington work every day with translators using five different languages because of immigrants drawn to meat processing plants there, he said.

And drug cases are more complicated. A guilty plea can mean no school loan, access to college housing or licensing for 30-odd occupations. Even that grandma gets thrown out of her public housing.

“There’s all sorts of stuff now we deal with that never used to exist,” Stuart said.

And sentences have gotten longer, he said. In the past 25 years Minnesota has gone from 2,000 to 10,000 inmates in its prison system.

On the plus side, Minnesota’s public defender system is not politicized. “In some states, if power changes, they immediately get new chief public defenders,” he said.

Minnesota is also a national leader in training public defenders to understand scientific evidence like DNA. “We do have a good training program,” he said.

“I’m proud of our system,” he said. “It’s a good public defender system, but we could use a lot of help.”

It would help the court system to have more public defenders available, because the lack of defenders slows down the whole process.

“It would actually be cost-effective for the state,” he said. “It would make the justice department work so much better.”

If the public defender system could get even another 50 attorneys it would be in a much better position, he added.

Currently, public defenders are outnumbered by prosecuting attorneys by about two to one in Minnesota, he noted. “County attorneys don’t like to hear that, but it’s true,” he said, with a twinge of envy.

After all, prosecuting attorneys can decide which cases to charge, they have the option to create diversion programs, and they tend to have public opinion on their side — it’s easier to convince a county board that more staff is needed than for the public defender’s office to convince a cash-strapped Legislature to hire more public defenders.

And when more police officers or assistant county attorneys are hired, more cases are generated, but no extra help is provided to the public defense side, he noted.

“Don’t get me wrong, I love county attorneys, but the system is not in balance,” Stuart said.

Stowman doesn’t hold out much hope of seeing more attorneys hired, but says some of the load could be lightened through advances in technology and by convincing judges to hold fewer hearing per case. He would also like to see income eligibility rules more strictly enforced.

“At one point several years ago we were getting close to 900 cases per year. That was not a healthy situation, attorney morale was low,” he said.

The board opted to cut back on the number of attorneys it provided in child protection cases, freeing up attorneys for criminal cases.

But 50 years after Gideon, Stuart says Minnesota’s public defender system no longer ranks among the top 10 states.

“Now we’ve fallen out of the top 10,” he said. “We’re sort of in the zone of the Gophers basketball team.”