NYSBA Prez: 60 years since landmark case, NY still doesn’t provide enough lawyers for the poor

March 21, 2023 Robert Abruzzese
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STATEWIDE — In celebration of the 60th Anniversary of the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision Gideon v. Wainwright, New York State Bar Association President Sherry Levin Wallach used the opportunity to remind state officials that it isn’t carrying out its duty to provide lawyers to the indigent.

“The New York State Bar Association has been a fierce advocate for access to justice and the right to counsel,” said Levin Wallach. “Today, we recognize the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision Gideon v. Wainwright that guaranteed that indigent people accused of crimes will have legal representation. Sixty years later, New York State hasn’t allocated sufficient resources to meet this mandate.

“The longer this goes unresolved, the more those in need of counsel and their communities suffer. In reflecting on the import of this moment in history, we urge the state to fully embrace its responsibility.”

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Gideon v. Wainwright is a landmark U.S. Supreme Court case that established the constitutional right to legal counsel for criminal defendants who cannot afford an attorney. 

The case arose in 1961 when Clarence Earl Gideon, a poor and uneducated Florida man, was charged with breaking and entering a pool hall. When Gideon asked the court to appoint an attorney to represent him, his request was denied, and he was forced to defend himself at trial. He was found guilty and sentenced to five years in prison.

Gideon appealed his case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, arguing that his Sixth Amendment right to a fair trial had been violated because he did not have a lawyer. In a unanimous decision, the Supreme Court agreed with Gideon, ruling that the Sixth Amendment’s guarantee of the right to counsel applies to the states through the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

This decision led to the creation of public defender systems and greatly expanded the right to legal counsel for indigent defendants in the United States.

In New York, individuals who meet certain income eligibility guidelines can request the appointment of a lawyer from the Assigned Counsel Plan, also known as the “18B” panel. These lawyers are private attorneys who are appointed by the court to represent indigent defendants. Additionally, in New York City, the Legal Aid Society and other non-profit organizations provide free legal representation to those who qualify based on their income and other factors.

Levin Wallach is calling on the State to properly fund the access to legal representation for indigent people accused of crimes in New York State would be for the state to allocate more resources to meet the mandate set forth by Gideon.

The NYSBA had previously sued the State over 18B attorneys and their pay. Both houses of the State Legislature recently passed budget bills that require the state to provide relief to counties for pay rate increases for lawyers who represent indigent individuals. This legislation could soon increase their pay to as much as $164 per hour. The current assigned counsel rate, set at $60 an hour for misdemeanors and $75 an hour for felonies, has not changed since 2004.

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