I was working in Washington DC during the Clinton era in what was, and still is, a divided city. On an afternoon I was spending with my daughter and grandson, we found ourselves in front of the Supreme Court Building looking up at its inscription, “Equal Justice Under Law”. A young man walking by confronted us and asked angrily, “What does that mean?” pointing to the words carved into the façade. Instinctively, I replied, “It’s an ideal to strive for.” With that he responded, “Good answer!” and continued on his way. Hoping he was satisfied, we were greatly relieved when he left.
Recent news reports on the 50th anniversary of Gideon v. Wainwright, the 1963 Supreme Court ruling that indigent defendants in criminal cases have a right to a lawyer paid for by the state, reminded me of that encounter. Our schools teach that our system of justice is a system of laws, which apply equally to all without discrimination. That ideal is expressed in the inscription. Although our views on whether particular laws are just may differ, we expect our system of justice to approach this ideal. Gideon was an attempt to reduce discrimination against indigents, but is there “Equal Justice Under Law”?
Gideon does not guaranty a competent or well-paid lawyer. The state provides great resources for prosecutors. They are more likely to convict a defendant with limited resources than one with independent resources to retain highly competent defense attorneys. Well-defended criminal cases can be lengthy and costly, both for the state and the defendant. This often motivates states to restrict support to indigent defendants. Under such circumstances only the wealthy are likely to receive justice.
The July 2010 Justice Policy Institute report: A Capitol Concern:The disproportionate impact of the justice system on low-income communities in D.C. notes that Washington, DC has the greatest income inequality of any major city in the country. The average income of the top fifth of households is 31 times higher than that of the bottom fifth of households. It also has some of the highest poverty and unemployment rates. Although total crime rates have fallen, police resources have increased, leading to increased arrests for low-level and non-violent offenses. These arrest policies disproportionately affect the low-income communities. A person living in a poor neighborhood just a short distance from where “Equal Justice Under Law” is inscribed might have good reason to ask an outsider “What does that mean?”