It was oddly fitting that Anthony Lewis died just days after the 50th anniversary of Gideon v. Wainwright, the Supreme Court case he meticulously recounted in his classic book, “Gideon’s Trumpet.” For decades as a columnist for The New York Times, Lewis managed the almost impossible feat of being both a wellspring of measured wisdom and a fearless advocate for the causes he embraced — principally the necessity of protecting individual rights. But before he became a columnist, Lewis showed how reporting alone can shape public attitudes: “Gideon’s Trumpet” revealed the unfairness of a system that exposed poor people to criminal charges without anyone to represent them. But it also demonstrated how a poor person could get real justice in the United States, through the courage of the Supreme Court.
Unfortunately, the right of poor people to get adequate lawyers has eroded in recent years. In too many state-court jurisdictions, public defenders are woefully overburdened; defendants feel compelled to plead guilty before obtaining any legal assistance; court-appointed defenders labor under the thumbs of the elected judges who can control whether they’ll obtain future appointments. In death-penalty cases, federal appeals courts have been unwilling to void more than a handful of convictions for lack of adequate counsel: Some scholars joke about the “foggy mirror” test — put a mirror up to the lawyer’s mouth and, if it fogs, the lawyer’s adequate.