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Gideon 2: A counsel for everyone
In our series on the 50th anniversary of the Gideon v. Wainwright Supreme Court ruling Gilman Halsted reports on how the historic decision led to the creation of the Wisconsin Public Defender system.
"I said I want you to appoint a lawyer to represent me in this case. I have a right to an attorney" “Mr. Gideon I am sorry but I cannot appoint counsel to represent you in this case."
That's Henry Fonda portraying Clarence Gideon in the 1980 movie Gideon's Trumpet, Hollywood’s tribute to the Supreme Court ruling that established the right to a court appointed attorney. Fifty years later here's what a public defender sounds like in a Milwaukee courtroom. In this case a homeless defendant is charged with graffiti and starting a fire in a trash can.
"Ryan Hagner on behalf of Mr. Thomas Melinda who appears in custody. Mr Melinda who appears in custody. He is currently homeless and without a phone number. He is public defender eligible I did review both criminal complaints with Mr. Melinda and advised him of his rights and we enter a plea of not guilty. "
Wisconsin’s Supreme Court had established the right to a publicly funded attorney in all felony cases in 1859 long before the Gideon ruling. Walter Dickey teaches law at the UW Madison Law School.
"Wisconsin's got a broader right to counsel than the United States Supreme Court has granted."
But before the Gideon ruling and for 15 years after it was the counties who paid for attorneys. Dickey says the way it was enforced varied by county.
"I remember one western Wisconsin county where there was a lawyer who had 80 appointments in one year and not a single trial. The obvious worry was that people were being appointed who rolled over and it was really more about efficiency and moving the cases than it was about the fair administration of Justice."
But that changed in 1979 when the state Public Defender office got funding to provide lawyers for poor defendants in almost all the counties. By 1985 every county has a cadre of public defenders. Last year the agency handled more than a 130 thousand cases and is on track to handle even more this year. Wendy Doherty of Superior says the system worked for her. She says without a public defender she likely would not have been acquitted of a charge of operating under the influence.
"I mean I could have tried to testify but I needed that lawyer there to do that for me, do the research. He had all the research down, knew all the language and had all the photos and saw that there could have been a mistrial because things were not being done right."
The head of the State Public Defender's Office Kelli Thompson says there's strong support for the current system that insures that people like Doherty can have a lawyer. She also says public defenders insure that trials run more smoothly.
"They can't function when people are there who have mental health issues, who have drug and alcohol issues who have educational barriers. The law’s complicated, it slows everything down the judges, it's hard for them to have someone there I believe and I think it's hard for district attorneys the department of justice to be on the other side when people aren't represented by counsel so I think everybody benefits."
But Thompson says there's still room for improvement. In 2009 the legislature boosted the Public Defender's budget and changed the poverty guidelines increasing the number of people who qualify to have a public defender. But there are still people who fall through the cracks.
Tomorrow Gilman reports on why some defendants still end up in a court room without an attorney and the efforts of reformers to expand public defender system to include those who face civil charges like eviction or welfare fraud.
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