Gideon Was A "Nut"?

Last weekend I was groping for inspiration, so I reread Anthony Lewis's Gideon's Trumpet. Frankly, I don't think I'd ever read it cover to cover before. As good a reporter as Lewis was, the details still interest me less than the the holding in Gideon v. Wainwright: indigent persons accused of a felony have a right to appointed counsel.

Tucked away in the Epilogue is the story of Gideon's retrial.

When two lawyers associated with the American Civil Liberties Union arrived to represent Gideon after the Supreme Court ruled in his favor, the defendant was less than impressed. "I want to plead my own case," Gideon told the trial court. "I want to make my own plea. I don't want them to make any plea for me," he intoned.

The lawyers were discharged and the trial judge implored Gideon to let himself be represented by counsel. Isn't there a local lawyer you'd like?, the judge asked. There was. Gideon chose a man named W. Fred Turner, who won the trial.

Writing after his discharge from the case, one of the ACLU lawyers had this to say: "In the future the name `Gideon' will stand for the great principle that the poor are entitled to the same type of justice as those who are able to afford counsel. It is probably a good thing that it is immaterial and unimportant that Gideon is something of a `nut,' that his maniacal distrust and suspicion lead him to the very borders of insanity. Upon the shoulders of such persons are our great rights carried."

This observation about Gideon has weighed heavily on me all week.

The life of a trial lawyer is rarely dull. One of the things that keeps it lively is reacting to the demands of clients. Clients come in all psychic shapes and sizes: The lawyer's job is to translate the law's contours for a client, and to press the law to accommodate the client's expectations. Only in textbooks is the world filled with reasonable people all of who respond in similar ways to life's challenges. In the well of the court, something like the state of nature obtains: raw emotions animate the litigants and sometimes the law of the jungle is all that truly exists.

So Gideon was a nut. He was irrational. He was idiosyncratic. But the law bent to take account of the dignity of individual faced with the overwhelming challenge of meeting the state's attempt to take his liberty. It somehow helped me to learn that Gideon was difficult. It helped because it reminds me that the law is about conflict, and trial lawyers are really just ambassadors for other people's sorrows and other people's perspectives. I need not always agree with my client; but I must respect his perspective if I can.

Of course, there are occasions when the otherworldly demands of a client press too hard. In those cases, the client is free to seek another port. Just like Gideon did. Turning a client away is always difficult; it feels like a failure on my part. But I suppose no less than Gideon, lawyers have their limits.

Comments: (1)

  • If this guy publicly called his former client "a n...
    If this guy publicly called his former client "a nut" I think that Gideon was very wise to get a different lawyer, huh?
    Posted on March 6, 2010 at 3:21 pm by Jeff Hall

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