The legal profession has worked for decades to create an indigent right to counsel in certain civil cases — what they call a “civil Gideon.”
This would ensure that everyone facing a serious civil claim, like loss of housing or other property, would get a lawyer when they couldn’t afford one.
The goal is named after the Florida drifter whose prison sentence created a right to counsel in all criminal cases.
In 1961, Clarence Earl Gideon stood accused of stealing a few dollars from a pool hall cash register in Panama City.
He couldn’t afford a lawyer. And with an 8th-grade education, he didn’t feel he could defend himself in court.
So he asked the judge to appoint a lawyer to defend him.
The judge declined, saying Florida law offered free lawyers only to poor defendants in capital cases.
Gideon defended himself, badly, and was sentenced to five years in prison.
But he learned the law fast, at least enough to appeal his case. His five-page handwritten petition for a writ of certiorari arrived at the U.S. Supreme Court in early 1962, and the court agreed to hear his case.
In Gideon v. Wainwright, 372 U.S. 335 (1963), the highest court in the land found that trying a criminal defendant without a lawyer when he faced a prison sentence violated his 14th Amendment rights.
Gideon won a new trial. This time, with a lawyer appointed to defend him, he was acquitted.
Fast forward 50 years, and we now know that civil claims against poor people grease their skids into the criminal justice system.
For example, people who’ve been evicted and made homeless are at high risk of taking desperate measures that could get them arrested. They’re also at risk of being swept off the streets on trumped-up charges.
The need for a civil Gideon is growing fast as gentrification takes hold in big cities.
In fact, New York City is part of a national pattern of rising rents that are forcing low-income people out of their homes. The city’s Housing Courts are a landlord’s playground, where 90% of tenants show up without a lawyer.
Local community groups have fought this scourge for many years, and they’ve found a partner in Mayor Bill DeBlasio. The city currently spends $60 million a year on lawyers and other services for tenants threatened with evictions.
In what must rank as the best news so far this year, the New York City Council passed legislation early this month to mandate a low-income right to counsel in its Housing Courts.
The City will spend an additional $33 million to ensure people get a fair shake during eviction proceedings.
This new policy will certainly slow down the process of gentrification, which could also help to stabilize the most vulnerable neighborhoods.
At a minimum, it will provide a voice for tenants and make landlords more fair. And that’s good for all of us.