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Marking the 50th anniversary of Gideon

Marking the 50th anniversary of Gideon

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On March 18, we observed the 50th anniversary of the Supreme Court's landmark decision in Gideon v. Wainwright, which guaranteed to all defendants, regardless of their economic status, the right to a lawyer to assist in their defense. As the chief federal prosecutor and chief federal public defender for the State of North Dakota, we recognize the importance and continued impact of this historic decision. The ideals articulated in Gideon v. Wainwright are fundamental to the values of both the U.S. Department of Justice and the public defenders representing indigent defendants in federal court.

Our criminal justice system and our confidence in its results depend on effective representation from both the prosecution and defense. A fair trial depends on a vigorous and thorough defense. Defendants have a right to eliminate potentially biased jurors through questioning, to effectively cross-examine prosecution witnesses, to find and present witnesses of their own should they choose to do so, and to present thoughtful opening statements and closing arguments. Someone untrained in the law finds himself on an uneven playing field when forced to perform all of those tasks himself against an experienced prosecutor. Our system of justice depends on an adversary system where the lawyers stand on equal footing. We can all feel more confident that justice is served when we know that defendants have access to effective lawyers to represent them.

Today new challenges confront the indigent defense system. Budget cuts threaten to underfund indigent defense systems in some parts of the country. The current problem is not denial of representation, as in Gideon, but of "under-representation," which occurs when indigent defense systems are hampered by insufficient resources, overwhelming caseloads, and inadequate oversight. But the truth is an inadequate indigent defense system presents added costs to taxpayers. When the justice system fails to get it right the first time, we all pay -- often for years -- for new filings, retrials, and appeals, while the real perpetrator of a crime goes free. Not only is a criminal defense a fundamental right, but it makes economic sense.

Here in North Dakota, the U.S Attorney's Office and the Federal Public Defender's Office are engaged in joint efforts to protect this important right. For example, we have worked together on training for private defense lawyers who take appointments to represent indigent defendants at compensation rates well below what they charge the general public. We have both reached out to tribal officials to provide training for prosecutors and defense attorneys in tribal courts. We have begun discussions with other court officials about ways to keep those convicted from committing new offenses by targeting resources at re-entry so they leave the criminal justice system for good once their sentences are complete. We've worked to find ways to handle cases as efficiently and effectively as possible so the tax dollars funding our offices go further. Perhaps most importantly, our offices have established open and cordial lines of communication so that cases are handled professionally and vigorously by both sides without needless bickering and delay.

Through our work together, the North Dakota United States Attorney's Office and the North Dakota Federal Public Defender's Office are committed to helping ensure that our nation delivers on the promise of Gideon because, as the Supreme Court said so eloquently in 1963,

". . . lawyers in criminal courts are necessities, not luxuries."

(Timothy Purdon is the United States Attorney for District of North Dakota and Neil Fulton is Chief Federal Public Defender for Districts of North Dakota and South Dakota.)


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