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Commentary Justice

Opinion: Reflections on Gideon’s Day

The Maryland State House. Photo by Danielle E. Gaines.

By Marci Tarrant Johnson

The writer is president of the Maryland Defenders Union. 

“There can be no equal justice where the kind of trial a man gets depends on the amount of money he has.”  Justice Hugo Black, Griffin v. Illinois, 351 US 12 (1956).

With House Bill 90 and Senate Bill 255 both passing their respective chambers and on the cusp of full passage, employees in the Maryland Office of the Public Defender are as close as ever to being granted collective bargaining rights. This long road was paved by clients and workers before us, and we should reflect on that so that we may forge a better path.

On June 3, 1961, five dollars in change and a few bottles of beer and soda were stolen from the Pool Room, a pool hall and beer bar in Florida. The owner also alleged that $50 was taken from the jukebox. Clarence Earl Gideon was arrested and charged with breaking and entering and larceny.

Mr. Gideon argued his case to the jury without the help of a lawyer because he could not afford one. The jury convicted him, and he was sentenced to serve five years in prison, the maximum sentence. From his jail cell, Mr. Gideon studied constitutional law, and ultimately wrote a letter to the Supreme Court asking the justices to review his case. On March 18, 1963, the United States Supreme Court ruled that the 6th Amendment to the Constitution guaranteed that Mr. Gideon and all others facing serious criminal charges have the right to a lawyer, whether or not they can afford to hire one. On re-trial with an attorney, Mr. Gideon was acquitted of all charges.

We at the Office of the Public Defender are grateful to Mr. Gideon for helping to inspire the creation of indigent defense agencies across the country to provide excellent lawyers to traditionally underserved populations facing charges in criminal court. The social workers, core staff and lawyers at the Office of the Public Defender dedicate their careers to zealously advocating for our clients across the state of Maryland.

Unfortunately, we are overworked and underpaid. We lack sufficient staff to be able to adequately prepare our cases by reviewing evidence, watching hundreds of hours of police body camera videos, and researching legal issues. As president of the Maryland Defenders Union and a lawyer with the agency for 27 years, I personally experience our crushing caseloads and know that my colleagues around the state face the same challenges in their offices. We are also paid far less than our counterparts at the Public Defender Service in D.C. and other neighboring jurisdictions.

Many Office of the Public Defender staff, especially our core staff, must work second jobs to support their families.

On this Gideon’s Day, we would like to thank the members of the Maryland General Assembly who have supported our efforts to obtain collective bargaining and attorney merit status. We hope that this is the dawn of a new era of public defense in Maryland — an era in which the defense guaranteed to each of our clients is zealous and outstanding.

Thank you, Mr. Gideon, for paving the way for justice in Maryland.

Today we celebrate you, and we envision a future in which we have support necessary to guarantee that our clients don’t suffer like you did.

“You ultimately judge the civility of a society not by how it treats the rich, the powerful, the protected and the highly esteemed, but by how it treats the poor, the disfavored and the disadvantaged….”  Bryan Stevenson