"It was impassioning to hear from a group of panelists who have struggled against the many injustices in our legal system without letting it defeat them," said Brian Lovell (J.D. '14). "Knowing that they still have the wherewithal to fight for what is just and honorable was a breath of fresh air."
To commemorate the 50th anniversary of Gideon v. Wainwright, three panelists discussed the case's impact and highlighted the state's progress in indigent defense, areas for improvement and the need for better training of public defenders.
Panelists, all who have played a role in ensuring Gideon's legacy, included Stephen B. Bright, president and senior counsel of the Southern Center for Human Rights in Atlanta; Norman S. Fletcher, former chief justice of the Supreme Court of Georgia; and Jonathan Rapping, president and founder of Gideon's Promise.
In Gideon v. Wainwright, the U.S. Supreme Court held that states must provide counsel for criminal defendants who cannot afford an attorney. The panelists provided a mixed review of the current state of indigent defense in Georgia, praising many within the system for making the best with what they have been given, yet remarking across the board that much progress remains to be made.
"Although the panelists acknowledged that such work may be extremely challenging—particularly under the conditions that exist today—they emphasized the importance of incremental progress and the role that individual attorneys can play in making such change occur," said Lauren Sudeall Lucas, assistant professor of law and panel moderator.
The discussion turned to areas where improvement is needed—for example, underfunding of indigent defense, overwhelming public defender caseloads, and low legal standards for the effective assistance of counsel. The panel expressed a clear need for better training for those providing defense services, including a focus on non-trial related tasks, given that only two percent of criminal cases in Georgia go to trial.
The panelists encouraged the students and others in the audience to get involved and help change the system despite the challenges, Lucas said.
Donny Snyder (J.D. '14) called Rapping particularly inspiring. "He inspired the audience to take charge in getting involved with public defense and work toward a better system that treats the less fortunate in ways of which we should not be ashamed," said the American Constitution Society's national liaison of the Georgia State University student chapter.
Elizabeth Haase (J.D. '14), has considered becoming a public defender but is worried about the burnout rate. "The panel made me realize that the pressures I'd need to fight against in order to not continue that trend and instead focus on changing the image and system internally," she said.
Haase also commented on how the recent changes to Georgia's indigent defense system make her hopeful that they system can be improved.
"I attended the panel session out of moderate interest at the historical significance of Gideon, but what I got was completely unexpected: a group of passionate advocates for public defense that could conceivably change my mind about what kind of law to practice," said part-time student Marisa Benson (J.D. '14).