Topic: Gideon v. Wainright
Date: SEPTEMBER 15, 2005
LEAHY: Let's go to another precedent that I know moved me a great deal, Gideon v. Wainwright.
LEAHY: As a young law student, my wife and I had an opportunity to have lunch with Hugo Black shortly after that. One of the most memorable times I had.
He's a former senator. He recognized the Sixth Amendment's guarantee to counsel in a criminal, with a fundamental right to a fair trial. He called it an obvious truth. In an adversary system of criminal justice, any person held in a court who's too poor to hire a lawyer cannot be assured a fair trial unless counsel is provided for them.
A wonderful book, "Gideon's Trumpet," that Anthony Lewis wrote.
LEAHY: Doesn't Gideon stand for the principle that it would be meaningful -- such a fundamental right as the right to counsel -- it requires assurances that it can be exercised?
ROBERTS: Yes, I think so.
I've often said that a lot of these difficulties, particularly in the areas of the legal errors being raised and collateral review -- a lot of those difficult questions could be avoided if people had competent counsel from the very beginning.
LEAHY: Well, doesn't the same principle embodied in Gideon, that the Constitution guarantees a person's ability to exercise fundamental constitutional rights -- doesn't that apply to other constitutional rights?
I mean, to be meaningful, we have these rights; they've also got to be real in people's lives.
ROBERTS: Well, I think the basic instinct and genius behind the Gideon decision was without counsel to protect people's rights, they were going to forfeit them, they were going to waive them, due to ignorance or inability to appreciate the proceedings. That's why you need counsel at that stage.
It's not because you have a right to counsel in the abstract. It was the recognition that having counsel is a way to ensure the protection of your other rights that you may not even be aware of.
LEAHY: That could be with a lot of our rights. They've got to be meaningful. You can't just say, "You have them."
And I'm really struck by your discussion of the Soviet constitution. I totally agree with you on that, but we have 280 million Americans of all different economic and educational backgrounds and everything else.
We have wonderful rights. Our Bill of Rights is, I think, one of the most amazing things ever written by democratic people.
But the rights are only there if they're meaningful in people's lives; that they can be enforced.
And ultimately, that may come right down to the courts. I mean, Hugo Black's opinion is a pretty strong opinion.