How individuals move legal revolutions on basic rights

Posted Wednesday, Mar. 27, 2013  comments  Print Reprints

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campbell Fifty years ago, on March 18, the U.S. Supreme Court decided that the Constitution stood for something that the justices previously had said it didn't.

In June of 1942, the court had upheld the robbery conviction of a poor Maryland man, Smith Betts, saying that the Constitution's due process guarantee didn't require states to provide legal counsel for indigent defendants unless, under the circumstances, trying an accused without a lawyer's help would be "offensive to the common and fundamental ideas of fairness."

But, almost 20 years later, Clarence Earl Gideon mailed his pencil-written petition to the justices seeking a hearing. Gideon, at 51, had been sentenced to five years in prison for the felony of breaking into a poolroom in Panama City, Fla. He had asked his trial judge to appoint a lawyer, saying, "The United States Supreme Court says I am entitled to be represented by counsel."

Gideon's request was denied, so he took his case up the appellate chain to the Supreme Court itself.

On a March Monday in 1963, a unanimous high court overruled the Betts decision and said due process means felony defendants in state as well as federal courts were entitled to lawyers.

"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," Justice Hugo Black wrote.

The late New York Times writer Anthony Lewis, in his brilliantly readable 1964 book Gideon's Trumpet, examined how one individual, "the single and least powerful of men," had helped "bring about a fundamental change in the law."

Lewis clearly and intricately explained how the court does its work and how Gideon happened onto a current that transformed constitutional rights for the criminally accused in America.

"That is the wonder of the law: that it moves case by case, seeking justice for each individual, but that any single case may be part of some larger movement," Lewis wrote.

Lewis died on Monday at age 85, and the many tributes to him credit him with revolutionizing how journalists report about the Supreme Court. He wrote about litigants as real human beings, put their predicaments into a larger context and underscored the import of the legal rulings by making them understandable to the public.

This week, another potentially historic current has been on display at the court, far more conspicuous than the one that swept Gideon along.

On Tuesday, the justices heard arguments on Proposition 8, which California voters approved in 2008 to constitutionally define marriage as between a man and a woman. Wednesday was devoted to the Defense of Marriage Act, which denies a panoply of federal benefits to same-sex couples even though they're considered married by the states where they live.

The individuals who've become the faces of the cases -- Hollingsworth v. Perry and U.S. v. Windsor -- didn't come to their roles quite as accidentally as Gideon, but they're ordinary folks. While there is most certainly a movement to establish the right of gays and lesbians to marry as fundamentally protected by the U.S. Constitution, this is also about real people's lives.

Partners Kris Perry and Sandy Stier of Berkeley, Calif., are soccer/band moms, working women and community volunteers who've raised four sons, including twin boys now in high school. A federal appeals court struck down Proposition 8, and supporters of the law want it reinstated. Perry and Stier are the face of those who believe the same-sex marriage ban is wrong and wrongheaded.

Edith Windsor is an 83-year-old New York resident who's seeking a refund on the more than $300,000 in federal estate taxes she had to pay after her spouse died in 2009 -- taxes she wouldn't have owed had her spouse been a man. She won at the appellate level, too.

We should know by summer whether they've brought about another fundamental change in the law.

Linda P. Campbell is a Star-Telegram editorial writer.


Twitter: @LindaPCampbell

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