Video: Public Defender Law Marks 50th Anniversary

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COLUMBUS, Miss. (WCBI) – The Supreme Court unanimously issued a decision in Gideon vs Wainwright, on March 18, 1963, that would ensure criminal defendants the right to an attorney.

Attorney Carrie Jourdan is a Public Defender in Lowndes County.

Gideon vs Wainwright was absolutely crucial because it basically made that right fundamental and available to everyone accused of a felony and it made the federal law applicable to states. So it really changed our criminal justice system fundamentally forever.

Jourdan says indigent defense, or the right to an attorney, specifically lead to more racial equality within the legal system at that time.

“Clearly this changed fundamentally how the black population was treated by the judicial system. They had more access. They were able to get some semblance of fairness, a voice for them developing to where we are today, where everybody pretty much takes for granted that they’re going to get counsel,” says Jourdan.

Although the law has made a positive impact on the judicial system, some think the Supreme Court ruling didn’t go far enough.

“It is important that we provide some type of representation for those parents who can’t afford an attorney. I think that any type of civil matter where a person’s fundamental right is being challenged in court, that the system needs to be set up where they are provided an attorney as well,” says Chancery Judge Dorothy Colom.

But in low tax-base states like Mississippi, some say expanding the law to cover civil cases simply isn’t affordable. Public Defenders are funded by the tax-payer and they’re often dealing with huge caseloads, causing the quality of legal representation to suffer. Still, the 1963 Supreme Court decision has given those without financial means the ability to defend themselves in court.

Studies show that nearly 80 percent of those charged with a felony say they cannot afford an attorney.

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