west pediment of the supreme court building with a carving that reads "equal justice for all"

Civil Gideon: The Right to Representation

Member Discrimination, George Freeman History, Law, Social Justice

The Supreme Courthouse. The right to representation is an important part of the American legal system.
Nearly every American who has watched a police drama the last 60 years has seen or heard these words: 

You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law. You have the right to have an attorney. If you cannot afford one, one will be appointed to you by the court.

Most call this statement after the man who inspired them:  Miranda. In the court case Miranda v. Arizona in 1966, the Supreme Court ruled that suspects who are tried in criminal courts have fundamental rights, and their ignorance of these rights shouldn’t be used to convict them.

One of those rights, the “right to an attorney” was expanded in another monumental case:  Gideon v. Wainwright.  In 1963, the Supreme Court ruled that the right to an attorney extends to nearly any crime, not just capital ones, and not just federal cases.  The law is a highly complex field, where expertise or ignorance can mean the difference between freedom and imprisonment. This is why the constitutional founders set forth the need for competent legal representation as a fundamental right to criminal justice.

George Freeman understands that “justice” shouldn’t just cover criminal cases, but the civil courts also.

Left aside were civil cases:  cases where one party claims another party has injured them, such as a contract breach, or their negligence lead to some harm, whether financial or physical.  In this case, “if you can not afford an attorney,” in a civil trial, one will not be appointed to represent you.  You’re on your own, leaving judgment less to “justice” and more to “who has more money.”  

George Freeman understands that “justice” shouldn’t just cover criminal cases, but the civil courts also.  Being accused in a civil case is a nerve wracking affair – how do you prove your innocence? How do you navigate the rules of the court and the expense of filing paperwork?  How do you do this while handling a job, a family, and all of the other things that can grind to a halt while attempting to defend yourself without the proper training? It’s like performing your own surgery after being denied a doctor.

Justice has to be more than simply representation in criminal courts; we must cover civil as well.  In her contribution to the Seattle Journal for Social Justice entitled “Washington ‘s Constitutional Right to Counsel in Civil Cases: Access to Justice v. Fundamental Interest , Deborah Perluss argues that:

“The fundamental right of access to justice requires a court to consider, as a matter of fairness and justice, the litigant’s ability to negotiate the system of justice in which he or she is found.”

George knows the reason why the writers of the Constitution put the attorney as a fundamental right is that justice cannot be obtained when one side has all of the power, whether it be from position, wealth, or knowledge of the law.  The courts and lawmakers have decided that people should not be powerless from ignorance or inability to pay in criminal court. It should be standard for civil cases that defendants are afforded the right to representation as well, so we can have justice through all levels of our judicial system.