"The right of one charged with crime to counsel may not be deemed fundamental and essential to fair trials in some countries, but it is in ours." Justice Hugo Black, Gideon v. Wainwright (1963)
Although a decision in Fresno, California today offers a glimmer of hope today, Gideon has eroded considerably since the words of Hugo Black:
any person haled into court, who is too poor to hire a lawyer, cannot be assured a fair trial unless counsel is provided for him. This seems to us to be an obvious truth. Governments, both state and federal, quite properly spend vast sums of money to establish machinery to try defendants accused of crime. Lawyers to prosecute are everywhere deemed essential to protect the public's interest in an orderly society. Similarly, there are few defendants charged with crime, few indeed, who fail to hire the best lawyers they can get to prepare and present their defenses. That government hires lawyers to prosecute and defendants who have the money hire lawyers to defend are the strongest indications of the widespread belief that lawyers in criminal courts are necessities, not luxuries. The right of one charged with crime to counsel may not be deemed fundamental and essential to fair trials in some countries, but it is in ours. From the very beginning, our state and national constitutions and laws have laid great emphasis on procedural and substantive safeguards designed to assure fair trials before impartial tribunals in which every defendant stands equal before the law. This noble ideal cannot be realized if the poor man charged with crime has to face his accusers without a lawyer to assist him.
This "noble ideal" doesn't become reality without public defenders who have time to ensure a fair trial for their clients. The situation in Fresno county abrubtly worsened when the existing staff of public defenders was cut by half, and the result was a lawsuit backed by the ACLU filed last year. According to the complaint in Phillips v State of California:
For at least six years, the Fresno County Public Defender’s Office (“the Office”) has been in a state of crisis, disabled from fulfilling this constitutional duty. Beginning in August 2008, the Fresno County Board of Supervisors (“the Board”) initiated a series of devastating cuts to the Public Defender’s budget, resulting in the loss of more than half the Office’s staff by the end of the 2011-2012 fiscal year. In January 2009, the Public Defender alerted the Board that recent cuts to the Office’s budget severely limited the Office’s ability “to provide competent and effective representation on each case” and “to staff or service all of the various courtrooms and calendars within Fresno County.”
Despite this clear message, the crisis went unaddressed. In September 2013 the union for the Public Defender’s Office warned the Board and Office management that excessive caseloads and the assignment of cases beyond attorneys’ skill and training “are jeopardizing our client[s’] constitutional rights on a daily basis.” The deputy public defenders asked for a response to their letter by September 30, 2013. In the nearly two years since then, the Board has never responded, and the crisis continues.
story in progress, decision from Phillips v. California is available at IndyBay