Monday, March 18, 2013

Supreme Court Justice Couldn't Say No to The President

It was 50 years ago today, March 18, 1963, that the U.S. Supreme Court decided the landmark case of Gideon v. Wainright, which held for the first time that a defendant in a criminal case, who could not afford a lawyer, was entitled to a court-appointed attorney.

Clarence Earl Gideon, a flat-broke, down on his luck drifter, had been charged with theft in Florida after breaking into a pool hall. Without the money to hire an attorney to represent him in court he defended himself. Perhaps not surprisingly he was convicted. What was somewhat surprising was that he was sentenced to serve five years in prison. Suddenly, with a lot of time on his hands, he set out to try to right what he saw as a wrong and hand wrote a petition to the Supreme Court asking that the Court review his case. The Supreme Court agreed to consider his matter and as you now know, they ended up siding with Gideon and holding for the first time that the right to counsel in a criminal case was a Constitutional right that applied to the States. When Gideon was retried his lawyer got him acquitted.

One of my all-time favorite books on the law is Gideon's Trumpet a fast read and thoroughly enjoyable account of how the case made it to the Supreme Court authored by Anthony Lewis, who was the N.Y. Times reporter assigned to the Supreme Court beat at the time.

The anniversary got me thinking about my own brush with one of the figures in that case, Arthur J. Goldberg, who was one of the justices on the court that decided Gideon v. Wainright.

I was a law student at Hastings College of the Law in 1975 when Goldberg, who by then was retired from the court, came to teach as a visiting professor. I was one of the 100 or so lucky students who got a spot in the class he taught on the Supreme Court and the Constitution. He had a lot of great stories to tell and one that I remember went like this. Perhaps a year or so after Gideon was decided, Goldberg was walking up the marble steps of the Supreme Court building in Washington when he noticed a homeless man approaching him. Thinking that he was looking for a handout Goldberg reached into the pocket of his gray flannel trousers to find some change to hand the man. As he and the man met, Goldberg offered the change. The man said, "I don't want money, I just wanted to shake your hand and thank you. I'm Clarence Gideon."

The other piece of advice I vividly remember Goldberg giving the class was, "If you're ever lucky enough to be appointed to the Supreme Court don't ever let a President talk you into stepping down." It turns out that particular piece of advice had quite a backstory to it. Before being appointed to the Court by President Kennedy, Goldberg had been Kennedy's Secretary of Labor. When Justice Felix Frankfurter retired in 1962 because of failing health, Kennedy tapped Goldberg to replace him. Goldberg remained on the court until 1965 when he was persuaded by President Lyndon Johnson to leave the court and serve as the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations. According to Goldberg, although he was extremely reluctant to give up his lifetime appointment to the court, Johnson convinced him he could play a significant role in ending the Vietnam War by taking the U.N. post. It was one of the rare occasions in history when a sitting Supreme Court Justice stepped down to take another post in the government. And of course, the Vietnam War would not end until the the Ford Administration. And by then, Goldberg was teaching law students like myself.

So who did Johnson nominate to replace Goldberg on the Court? Abe Fortas, who, besides being a close personal friend of Johnson, also happened to be the lawyer who was appointed to represent Clarence Gideon and who argued the case before Goldberg and his brethren on the Supreme Court.