Every day, indigent defenders1 are challenged to fulfill their mission that each person accused of a crime is treated equally and fairly by the court system. Whether it is overwhelming caseloads, underfunded resources, understaffed offices, or overzealous prosecutors, each day those representing the poor are challenged to keep Gideon’s promise alive. And each day, in courtrooms all across the country, we witness heroic efforts to win that fight.
[Indigent defenders] stand alone, armed only with their wits, training, and dedication. Inspired by their clients’ hope, faith, and trust, they are the warriors and valkyries of those desperately in need of a champion. … [Indigent defenders] by protecting the downtrodden and poor, shield against infringement of our protections, and in reality, protect us all.2
As we embark upon our 50th anniversary celebration of the decision in Gideon v. Wainwright, NACDL is honored to announce the creation of the Gideon’s Champions Project, spotlighting and celebrating the work being done daily in the trenches by front-line indigent defenders.
Day in and day out these attorney-warriors toil under difficult circumstances, and they do so not for money or for glory, but because of their commitment to their clients and to justice. They battle tirelessly against the government, the courts, and the general public to assure that those who are often marginalized and forgotten by society have a voice and are heard. Their cases may not garner headlines, but the value and importance of their work - to their clients and the criminal justice system - are immeasurable. Indigent defenders make certain that people are seen for whom they are and not simply defined by what they may have done. They serve as a shield against unjust accusations and a sword against oppression.
They honor the promise made in the Public Defender Credo:
I am the guardian of the presumption of innocence, due process, and fair trial. To me is entrusted the preservation of those sacred principles. I will promulgate them with courtesy and respect but not with obsequiousness and not with fear for I am partisan; I am counsel for the defense. Let none who oppose me forget that with every fiber of my being I will fight for my clients. My clients are the indigent accused. They are the lonely, the friendless. There is no one to speak for them but me. My voice will be raised in their defense. I will resolve all doubt in their favor. This will be my credo; this and the Golden Rule. I will seek acclaim and approval only from my own conscience. And if upon my death there are a few lonely people who have benefited, my efforts will not have been in vain.3
It would be impossible to properly and fully honor each and every individual indigent defender who toils daily in the courtroom. By highlighting the work of some, however, we hope to honor the legacy they represent, the assurance that in the United States the amount of justice a man receives is not dependent on the amount of money in his pocket.
During the next 12 months, each issue of The Champion will profile front-line indigent defenders and the work they do to assure each person accused is not powerless and voiceless before the massive machine of the government. As Gideon’s Champions, these defenders demonstrate that while there may be diversity of geography, defense delivery system and practice, in the field of indigent defense there is a commonality of passion, drive, and dedication.
- The term “indigent defenders” as used in this article includes state and federal public defenders, court-appointed counsel, contract attorneys, and conflict attorneys.
- Hightower v. Florida, 592 So. 2d 689, 692 (Fla. Dist. Ct. App. 1991) (Gersten, J., dissenting).
- Jim Doherty, Cook County (Illinois) Public Defender. n