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With a Goal of Equality Under the Law, The Missouri Bar Honors 'Gideon' Case on Law Day

Gavel Court
(Photo credit: steakpinball, via Flickr)

May 1 is Law Day in the United States. That’s a day to focus on the importance of law in society. The Missouri Bar recognized Law Day by highlighting one Missourian’s role in a landmark decision that guaranteed every American’s right to an attorney. KSMU’s Jennifer Davidson has more.

50 years ago, a native of Hannibal, Missouri, sent a hand-written letter from a prison cell to the US Supreme Court.  Clarence Earl Gideon argued that he had been denied an attorney, and therefore, that his 6th Amendment rights had been violated. 50 years ago this Spring, the Supreme Court agreed with him in its unanimous decision in Gideon v. Wainwright. Since then, states have been obligated to provide an attorney for alleged criminals who could not afford one.

In recent years, the Missouri State Public Defender, which represents indigent Missourians charged with a crime, has closed some of its offices, citing heavy caseloads. This set off a ripple effect of dissent between prosecutors, public defenders, judges, and the people who were left without representation.

Pat Starke is president of The Missouri Bar. He says the Bar is working hard to address that crisis.

“The Bar’s role in that has been, basically, to facilitate resolution.  Because, of course, we have constituents on the prosecution side, we have constituents on the defense side, and we have constituents who are judges. So, really, we’ve been able to take a higher road on this, because our advocacy is to make the system more functional,  keeping in mind a couple of things:  that the public deserves to be safe and deserves to have its laws enforced statewide– and that people who are charged with crimes deserve to have their rights protected in court. And if they can’t afford a lawyer, our culture, vis-à-vis our Supreme Court, says that we will provide a lawyer for them because we have a complex system, because we have a complex culture. And that complex system is not something that most people can necessarily know,” Starke said.

The Missouri Bar has recommended to the legislature ways that all branches of the criminal justice system can get everything they need, albeit not everything they want, Starke said. One idea is to explore bringing in private attorneys for some cases.

The Springfield Metropolitan Bar Association has been a pioneer in finding a solution to the criminal justice crisis in Missouri:  it implemented a pilot program exploring ways for private attorneys to step in and alleviate public defenders on some misdemeanor cases.

To celebrate Law Day, the Missouri Bar is also honoring the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation and the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech with an essay contest for 4-12 grade students and an art contest for K-5 graders.

For KSMU News, I’m Jennifer Davidson.

See some of KSMU's past reporting on Missouri's Public Defender System here.