On March 18, 1963, the Supreme Court issued a landmark ruling that guaranteed criminal defendants the right to counsel. It’s a right that people may take for granted today. That’s all the more important because Justice Clarence Thomas has directly called the precedent into question.
That crucial ruling, Gideon v. Wainwright, came 60 years ago this weekend. It said in part:
Not only these precedents but also reason and reflection require us to recognize that in our adversary system of criminal justice, any person haled into court, who is too poor to hire a lawyer, cannot be assured a fair trial unless counsel is provided for him. This seems to us to be an obvious truth.
It’s difficult to argue with that commonsense notion. But alas, Thomas has tried.
In a 2019 dissent, in which he was joined by Donald Trump appointee Neil Gorsuch, Thomas wrote that the justices who decided Gideon decades ago didn’t attempt “to square the expansive rights they recognized with the original meaning of” the Constitution. Of course, we’ve seen this GOP court trample rights under the guise of originalism.
And while this was only two justices calling Gideon into question, we’ve learned that precedent only means what the court’s current majority wants it to mean. I recently noted the irony of Thomas and Gorsuch wanting to revisit a landmark defamation precedent, given that doing so could hurt Fox News.
But when it comes to further weakening the right to counsel, a majority latching on to that idea would be more than ironic: It would be tragic.