In recognition of the 55th Anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark decision in Gideon v. Wainwright, CPCS held an informational forum for Legislators and their staff on Gideon and the right to counsel at the Massachusetts State House on March 20, 2018. Although a majority of those attending were staff, several legislators, including State Rep. Joan Meschino (D-Hull), State Rep. Jack Lewis (D-Framingham), and State Rep. Chynah Tyler (D-Roxbury) were on hand for a portion of the day’s event.
CPCS Chief Counsel Anthony Benedetti thanked the audience for
attending and recognized guest speakers, SJC Chief Justice Ralph Gants and Senate Judiciary Chairman William Brownsberger (D-Belmont), for agreeing to share their perspective on why the right to counsel is so important. Both speakers focused their remarks on quality counsel and why it is necessary if we are to fulfill Gideon’s promise. Chief Justice Gants explained that expecting attorneys, both public and private, to accept cases for inadequate compensation leads to a dearth of quality counsel. He called attention to the fact that public attorneys who represent the liberty interests and rights of the Commonwealth’s indigent do not make nearly as much as Executive Branch attorneys who do important work, but who do not face the same burdens and complications as public defenders, especially risking a client’s freedom. Sen. Brownsberger spoke to his personal experience as a member of the private bar who accepted indigent cases and the difficulties attorneys face, including the lack of trust clients have for most public and private assigned counsel when their they are first assigned.
Before showing the film, “Defending Gideon”, Chief Counsel Benedetti gave a brief history of the right to counsel in Massachusetts, noting, “In Massachusetts, we have unwaveringly upheld this freedom far longer than most other states with the right to counsel having a long and legendary history. When Gideon was decided, the belief that the right to counsel is fundamental was very old news in the Commonwealth – by nearly 200 years.” He took the audience from 1770 Colonial Massachusetts with John Adams and the Boston Massacre to 1963 and the Commonwealth’s direct involvement with Gideon because of Massachusetts Assistant AG Gerald Berlin’s amicus brief in support of Mr. Gideon and the right to counsel.
The Chief Counsel closed by telling the audience, “Although we are here to celebrate Gideon, we must also defend it. As states across the nation struggle with dwindling fiscal resources the right that Gideon secured is in jeopardy….‘Defending Gideon’ tells the story of Clarence Earl Gideon and the successful outcome of his efforts, and it alerts us to the risks challenging the right to counsel that he so persuasively won.” He added, “Unlike many other states, the Massachusetts system provided through CPCS has been lauded as ‘the best statewide indigent defense program in the country’, it has often been a model to which other states turn when they are looking to improve their systems, and we continue to work tirelessly with the help of both the Legislature and the Court to make certain that we protect the right to counsel and provide the highest quality, zealous representation possible to our clients.”