Thursday, July 31, 2014
To protect the “noble ideal” that “every defendant stands equal before the law,” Gideon v. Wainwright guaranteed the right to defense counsel for those who cannot afford it. Gideon’s concept is elegantly simple: if you are too poor to pay for counsel, the government will provide. The much more complicated reality, however, is that since Gideon, courts have assigned counsel to millions of American defendants too poor to pay for an attorney, have required those defendants to pay for their counsels’ services, and have punished those unable to do so.
This essay examines how we moved from Gideon’s guarantee to this reality. I assert that Gideon’s protection against recoupment for those with no ability to pay has remained hidden in plain sight due to misinterpretations in two lines of cases. The first line involves a series of cases in which the Court held that the Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment required the waiver of financial barriers to accessing the courts. The second line involves the misapplication of the Fifth Amendment’s collateral consequences doctrine to the Sixth Amendment’s effective assistance of counsel jurisprudence, leading to a misunderstanding that to be constitutionally effective, counsel need not advise a client about collateral consequences.
I posit that the intersection of these two lines of cases has obscured the unconstitutional nature of today’s recoupment schemes, pushing Gideon out of the picture. The more or less successful attempts by advocates, academics, and the courts to squeeze recoupment into a due process/equal protection/effective assistance of counsel frame misses the fact that today’s version of recoupment is itself a Gideon problem.