Attorney General Eric Holder
Speaks at the Justice Department's 50th
Anniversary Celebration of
the U.S. Supreme Court Decision in Gideon v.
Thank you, Tony [West], for those kind words – and for your leadership as Acting
Associate Attorney General. It’s a privilege to stand with you and Deborah [Leff]
today – and to be among so many good friends and distinguished guests here in
the Great Hall. I’d like to extend a special welcome to former Vice President
[Walter] Mondale, Justice [Elena] Kagan, Nina Totenberg, each of our panelists,
and all of the federal and state leaders, policymakers, and jurists who are here
this afternoon – particularly Representative [John] Conyers; Representative
[Chaka] Fattah; Chief Justice [Wallace] Jefferson, of the Texas Supreme Court;
and Chief Judge [Jonathan] Lippman, of the New York Court of Appeals. Thank you
for taking part in this important ceremony. It’s an honor to join you in
commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s landmark decision in
Gideon v. Wainwright.
Today’s observance marks a unique opportunity to remind professionals from
across our nation’s legal community about the sacred responsibilities that every
one of us shares. It provides a chance to call attention to the needs that we
all must fulfill – and the challenges that prosecutors, public defenders, and
policymakers throughout the country are called to address. And it’s an
important moment not merely to reflect on our past, but to plan for the future –
and recommit ourselves to the ideals laid out in Justice Hugo Black’s historic
Fifty years ago this Monday – writing for a unanimous Supreme Court – Justice
Black observed that: it “seems to us to be an obvious truth” that “in our
adversary system, any person haled into court, who is too poor to hire a lawyer,
cannot be assured of a fair trial unless counsel is provided to him.” This
constituted a watershed moment – and a critical step forward – in our nation’s
enduring pursuit of equal justice for all.
By holding that every defendant charged with a serious crime has the right to an
attorney – even if he or she cannot afford one – the Court recognized the
significance of legal assistance in safeguarding due process. It furthered the
aspirations of countless lawyers and activists who, throughout history, have
stood up – and spoken out – for the common humanity and basic rights of every
citizen. And it paved the way for the expansion of the right to counsel in the
years that followed.
Yet the journey that led to this momentous decision began quite humbly – with an
act as simple as it was profoundly optimistic. In 1961, a poor drifter named
Clarence Earl Gideon was arrested in Florida on charges of theft. He was forced
to conduct his own defense, after his request for a court-appointed attorney was
denied. After a jury found him guilty – and even after his petition to the
Florida Supreme Court was turned away – he remained undeterred. He drafted
another petition – in pencil, on prison stationery. And he addressed it to the
United States Supreme Court.
In this extraordinary document – which is on display for this event here at the
Department, just a short distance from my office on the fifth floor – Clarence
Earl Gideon appealed to the principles of fairness and equality that have always
defined our justice system and stood at the core of our identity as a nation.
In five handwritten pages, he laid out a straightforward argument that would –
in the words of my predecessor, Attorney General Robert Kennedy – change “the
whole course of legal history . . . .”
As Gideon would go on to write in a reply brief: “It makes no difference how
old I am or what color I am or what church I belong too if any. The question is
I did not get a fair trial. The question is very simple. I requested the court
to appoint me [an] attorney and the court refused.”
In June of 1962, the Supreme Court granted Gideon’s petition – and selected a
prominent Washington lawyer to lead the team representing him. We’re honored to
have one of the members of this team, Abe Krash, here with us today – and I’d
like to invite him to stand so we can give him a round of applause.
Meanwhile, the Florida Attorney General’s office began reaching out to its 49
counterparts – asking for their support as it prepared to argue the other side
of the case. But this strategy backfired when Minnesota’s Attorney General – a
young man named Walter Mondale, who was only a few years out of law school –
strongly disagreed with Florida’s position.
Thanks largely to then-Attorney General Mondale’s advocacy – a total of 22
states signed on to an amicus brief in support of Clarence Earl Gideon. Only
two submitted a brief supporting Florida. And on March 18, 1963 – when the
Supreme Court unanimously held that Gideon’s right to due process had been
violated – the foundation of America’s legal system was forever altered.
Of course, the progress heralded by the Court’s opinion – and the sweeping
changes it demanded from coast to coast – would not happen overnight. And they
could never be handed down from the bench. In many ways, this decision would
have to be put into action by the American people – and their state and local
In the decades since this remarkable case – and Gideon’s retrial, at which he
was found not guilty – public defender systems have been established in some
states and strengthened in others. Additional court actions have expanded the
right to counsel in juvenile and certain misdemeanor cases. And our nation has
made significant strides in fulfilling the promise of Gideon – and ensuring
quality representation for more of those who need it.
Yet, despite half a century of progress – even today, in 2013, far too many
Americans struggle to gain access to the legal assistance they need. And far
too many children and adults routinely enter our juvenile and criminal justice
systems with little understanding of the rights to which they’re entitled, the
charges against them, or the potential sentences they may face.
In short, America’s indigent defense systems exist in a state of crisis. Like
many of you, this is something I’ve seen firsthand. As a judge on the District
of Columbia Superior Court – and, later, as United States Attorney for the
District of Columbia – I frequently witnessed the devastating consequences of
inadequate representation. I saw that wrongful convictions and unjust sentences
carry a moral cost that’s impossible to measure – and undermine the strength,
integrity, and public trust in our legal system. I also recognize that, in
purely economic terms, they drain precious taxpayer resources – and constitute
an outrageous waste of court funds on new filings, retrials, and appeals just
because the system failed to get it right the first time.
Today – together – it’s time to declare, once again, that this is unacceptable –
and unworthy of a legal system that stands as an example for all the world.
It’s time to reclaim Gideon’s petition – and resolve to confront the obstacles
facing indigent defense providers. Most of all, it’s time to speak out – with
one voice – to rally our peers and partners at every level of government and the
private sector to this important cause.
I’m proud to say that today’s Justice Department is rising to this challenge.
And we’re responding to this call not with despair, but with dedication – and a
plan for action. Alongside allies like the American Bar Association – which
developed the landmark Ten Principles of a Public Defense Delivery System – my
colleagues and I are fighting to institute the policies we need to improve
representation for the disadvantaged. And we’re engaging with leaders like the
National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, the National Legal Aid &
Defender Association, state government officials, nonprofits, NGOs, and many
others to drive this work into the future.
At the center of our efforts is the Department’s Access to Justice Initiative –
a new component I launched in 2010 to help ensure that basic legal services are
available, affordable, and accessible to everyone in this country – regardless
of status or income. Under the past leadership of the incomparable Professor
Larry Tribe and Mark Childress – and, today, thanks to the hard work of Acting
Senior Counselor Deborah Leff and her staff – the Access to Justice Initiative
is collaborating with a wide range of partners to broaden access to quality
representation, highlight best practices, and bring new allies into this work.
In addition, through the Office of Justice Programs and other components, the
Department is developing concrete steps to help us better understand and address
indigent defense issues. Last year, in New Orleans, I unveiled a grant program
known as “Answering Gideon’s Call,” through which the Bureau of Justice
Assistance awarded $1.2 million in funding to four states – each of which has
partnered with a research organization to track outcomes. Under another
initiative funded by the National Institute of Justice – and totaling $1.6
million – we’re supporting research projects examining “holistic defense”
approaches, studying factors that lead juveniles to waive their right to
counsel, and evaluating the challenges of representing indigent defendants with
mental health disorders.
Beyond this, we’re striving to bring stakeholders together – including law
enforcement, court officials, prosecutors, indigent defense providers, and
correctional officers – to refine existing programs such as Edward Byrne
Memorial Justice Assistance Grants. We are developing a national-level “Census
of Public Defender Offices” to provide a snapshot of the efforts that are
underway across America, determine what works, and assess training and resource
needs. For the first time ever, we’re helping to offer free training sessions
to jurists and other legal professionals who serve Indian Country. We’re
working with the ABA to examine – and potentially mitigate – the collateral
consequences that often accompany certain convictions. And we’re using the
Department’s enforcement authorities in targeted ways to prompt defense system
These and other initiatives are proof of the Justice Department’s steadfast
commitment to protecting the rights and interests of the most vulnerable among
us. There can be no question that this work shows tremendous promise – and we
can all be proud of the efforts that so many of you are helping to lead. Yet
there’s also no denying that much remains to be done.
Fortunately, all of this is only the beginning. And today, I’m pleased to
announce that the Justice Department will soon offer $1.8 million in new
resources and tools to fulfill the rights guaranteed by Gideon; to provide
assistance to the jurisdictions that need it most; and to bolster national
efforts to build effective public defense systems across America.
Through a second “Answering Gideon’s Call” grant initiative – focused on
improving the effectiveness of right-to-counsel services – BJA will soon award
over $700,000 to a non-profit organization and its partners to support training
and technical assistance based on the ABA’s Ten Principles. They will also
re-evaluate qualified applications for last year’s grants under this program,
and will offer more than a quarter million dollars – each – to two past
In addition, the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention will
provide $400,000 to fund a project improving the level of systemic advocacy, the
quality of representation for indigent juveniles, and the kinds of support
available to the juvenile indigent defense bar. The National Training and
Technical Assistance Center will commit a total of $90,000 for technical
assistance to help several states meet their constitutional obligations to
provide competent representation for the poor. And BJA will provide $50,000 to
implement the “Measures for Justice” initiative in Milwaukee – a rigorous
evaluation tool that will help illuminate strategies for success and empower
criminal justice stakeholders to make the changes they need.
Of course, all of this assistance – and support for cutting-edge research – is
dependent on funding that’s made available by Congress. And in 2013, our
funding is impacted by the “sequester” – which cut over $1.6 billion from the
Justice Department’s budget, including $100 million from essential grant
programs like the ones I’ve just announced.
Put simply, this Department cannot afford to lose such a significant portion of
its budget – particularly in a time of uncommon challenges, when many legal
assistance organizations are facing shortfalls, and state and local officials
have been asked to do more with less. That’s why it’s imperative that
Congressional leaders quickly adopt a balanced deficit reduction plan to stop
these untenable cuts. And it’s also why – today, more than ever before –
prosecutors and defenders must come together to make the most of limited
As we look toward the future, we all must collaborate to improve our justice
system. Since becoming Attorney General four years ago, I’ve urged my
colleagues to step up and do just that. And I’m pleased that the dedicated men
and women of the United States Attorney community have taken this to heart – and
many are working closely with the defense bar in a variety of contexts.
For instance, in Nebraska – and in the Southern District of Iowa – our U.S.
Attorneys regularly meet with federal public defenders to discuss areas of
mutual concern. In the Eastern District of Michigan, federal prosecutors are
partnering with the Federal Defender’s Office to hold public events – and plan
additional forums for discussion about pretrial services and other issues with
the defense bar.
Here in Washington, Justice Department leaders have worked with Federal Public
Defenders – and counsel appointed under the Criminal Justice Act – to develop
best practices for dealing with electronically stored information, or ESI,
during the discovery process. And we’ve begun preliminary discussions about
conducting a joint training session right here in the Great Hall – so
prosecutors can learn alongside public defenders and CJA counsel from across the
In the end, this may be the single most important legacy of Gideon: that it
serves as a reminder of the obligation entrusted to every legal professional –
not merely to serve clients or win cases, but to do justice. It stands as a
testament to the fact that the structures and mechanisms of our legal system,
far from being etched in stone, remain works in progress. And it’s a powerful
example of how – in this great country – even the humblest hands can help to
bend the arc of history just a little further toward justice.
Although Clarence Earl Gideon did not live to see even the tenth anniversary of
this pivotal decision, his story – and his indelible, handwritten words – remind
us that we cannot rest in our efforts to see that justice is done. And we must
never stop fighting to realize the principle that we have come to know by his
name – by guaranteeing that every person in this country can access quality
legal representation any time they come before the criminal justice system.
Colleagues, this is our solemn responsibility – and our moral calling. And as I
look over this crowd today, and reflect on how far we’ve come in the last 50
years – despite the challenges of the hour and the obstacles ahead – I can’t
help but feel confident in where our indigent defense efforts will lead us over
the next 50.
So let us seize this moment – and take advantage of this opportunity – to act
with optimism, and without delay; to stay true to the values that have always
guided our steps forward; and to stand up for the ideals that must always drive
our ongoing pursuit of a more free, more just, and more perfect Union.
Fifty Years Later: The Legacy of Gideon v.
Eighty-Second Attorney General, 2009-2015
Eric H. Holder, Jr., was born on January 21, 1951, in the Bronx, New York. He
attended public schools, graduating from Stuyvesant High School, where he earned
a Regents Scholarship. He attended Columbia College as an American History
major, graduating in 1973.
He then went on to attend Columbia Law School, where he clerked at the N.A.A.C.P.
Legal Defense Fund and the Criminal Division of the Department of Justice. Upon
graduating in 1976, he moved to Washington and joined the Department of Justice
as part of the Attorney General's Honors Program. He was assigned to the newly
formed Public Integrity Section and was tasked with investigating and
prosecuting official corruption at the local, state and federal levels.
In 1988, Mr. Holder was nominated by President Ronald Reagan to become an
Associate Judge of the Superior Court of the District of Columbia. He sat on the
bench until 1993, when President Bill Clinton appointed him U.S. Attorney for
the District of Columbia. In 1997, President Clinton named Mr. Holder as Deputy
Attorney General, making him the first African American to hold that post.
Prior to becoming Attorney General, Mr. Holder was a litigation partner at
Covington & Burling LLP in Washington.
President Barack Obama announced his intention to nominate Mr. Holder on
December 1, 2008, and he was sworn in as the 82nd Attorney General of the United
States on February 3, 2009 by Vice-President Joe Biden. He resigned after
serving more than six years as attorney general.