HE WAS A drifter from Florida convicted of stealing change from a pool hall cigarette machine. But Clarence Earl Gideon's challenge of the United States justice system 40 years ago guaranteed poor criminal defendants the right to be represented by a lawyer. Now, Maryland death row inmate Kevin Wiggins' claim to the U.S. Supreme Court has addressed the quality of that legal representation.
Just as it heard Gideon's trumpet, the U.S. Supreme Court heard Mr. Wiggins' plea and recognized the necessity of competent lawyering, especially to a house painter with limited intelligence who was facing the ultimate punishment -- death. That criminal lawyers in capital cases should meet at least minimal professional standards would seem a reasonable expectation. But for a certain class of defendant in courthouses across this country, no such expectation exists.
That's why the Supreme Court's message in the Wiggins case bears repeating in courthouses and state capitals: Defendants are entitled to competent lawyers. Too often, from North Dakota to Florida, poor defendants must rely on court-appointed lawyers or state public defenders to represent them.
Time and again, lawyers with neither the means nor the mindset to properly defend a client on a capital charge have been given that job. Remember the Texas lawyer who slept through his client's trial? And the Tennessee attorney who didn't even ask the jury to spare his client's life? The fact is that many states don't pay enough to attract good lawyers or those willing to invest the time that a death penalty case requires. Others offer little or no resources to properly investigate a client's case. Some carry no prohibition against appointing lawyers with checkered pasts, as a recent report by the American Civil Liberties Union discovered.
Even in states with a public defender's office, such as Maryland, caseloads can be high, lawyers overworked and appointed co-counsels woefully underpaid. Who would take time out from a private law practice to handle a death penalty case for $30 to $35 an hour? That's the rate in Maryland, which is among the lowest in the country and is undergoing review.
An embarrassing array of miscarriages of justice has spurred some reforms. Texas -- home of the sleeping lawyer -- passed a law to expedite the appointment of criminal attorneys and improve the lawyering. But not every county has adhered to it.
States could start improving their delivery of justice by selecting lawyers who meet American Bar Association professional standards. The ABA also has recommended an independent process to remove politics from the appointments.
Guaranteeing that defendants receive a fair and just trial depends in part on the counsel they receive. As former FBI Director William S. Sessions argued in seeking a stay of execution for a Texas death row inmate, "When a criminal defendant is forced to pay with his life for his lawyer's errors, the effectiveness of the criminal justice system as a whole is undermined."