WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Wednesday, March 18, marks the 35th anniversary of the landmark Supreme Court decision in Gideon v. Wainwright. The case established that every person has a constitutional right to a criminal defense lawyer in all felony cases, whether they occur in federal or state court. Attorney General Janet Reno issued the following statement:

"Criminal defendants, on their own, can choose to defend themselves in a court of law. But no one should not have to do so simply because they are poor.

"Thirty five person haled be assured a [t]his seems

years ago the Supreme Court agreed. It said, 'any into court, who is too poor to hire a lawyer, cannot fair trial unless counsel is provided for him ... to be an obvious truth.'

"All of us benefit when a defendant who cannot afford a lawyer is appointed one by the court. It helps guarantee that any outcome--be it guilt or innocence--is just and definitive.

"The right to counsel is a bedrock constitutional rule that implicates the fundamental fairness and accuracy of every criminal proceeding.

"No criminal justice system is perfect and any system, including ours, occasionally finds the wrong person arrested. When that happens, the right to counsel is our best protection against a nightmarish transgression of justice.

"Since the Gideon case, our nation has invested significant resources making sure its promise is fulfilled. And the overall state of representation for indigent defendants has improved immeasurably in the 35 years since Gideon. But, on occasion, we still hear of substandard representation in criminal cases. Perhaps it is due to insufficient resources. Perhaps it is due to a system within a state that does not adequately provide representation. Indeed, we have far to go to ensure all defendants receive quality representation and that justice is administered fairly.

"First, we need to better grasp the scope of the problem. That is why the Justice Department, for the first time in more than 10 years, has begun to document the state of indigent defense services at the state and local levels. I have also maintained an open dialogue with judges, state and federal prosecutors and defense attorneys alike, to better understand the scope of the problem.

"Second, we need to continually focus on the issue and stress the importance of Gideon. That is why I urge every state to take this occasion to review their indigent legal defense services and recommit themselves to the promise of Gideon.

"Third, we need to share ideas as to how we can best use our available resources to provide for indigent counsel and address the inadequacies in the system. That is why I will be working with all interested parties to discuss where we need to go from here in fulfilling the promise of Gideon.

"The Gideon decision beckons us all to work to ensure that our justice system fully provides, in both fact and spirit, liberty and justice to all, rich and poor alike."

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