For Ventura County Public Defender Kenneth I. Clayman, March 18, 1963, is a momentous date -- right up there with his wedding anniversary.
Clayman, 61, is so passionate about it, in fact, that last week he persuaded county leaders to proclaim today "Gideon Day in Ventura County." The title refers to the 40th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court's landmark decision in Gideon vs. Wainwright, which guarantees the right of every person accused of a crime to be represented by a lawyer regardless of wealth.
Clayman drafted the proclamation. He also has spoken before service clubs and written an editorial about the case as part of a persistent campaign to focus attention on the role of the public defender and the importance of ensuring equal justice for all.
"It is a magnificent case," Clayman said, "one of greatest Supreme Court decisions, a decision that states that every person who comes into a court accused of a crime is entitled to have a lawyer appointed."
Although the 6th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution guarantees the right to counsel, it makes no reference to providing lawyers for poor people who cannot afford to hire one.
Clarence Gideon effectively changed that.
A penniless drifter, Gideon was charged in 1963 with breaking into a Florida poolroom and stealing coins from a cigarette machine. He declared his innocence and asked for a lawyer to represent him. His request was denied, so he represented himself and was convicted of felony breaking and entering with the intent to commit a misdemeanor. He was sentenced to five years in state prison.
From his cell, Gideon wrote a petition to the Supreme Court, arguing that he was denied a fair trial because he did not have legal representation. The court agreed, stating, "in our adversary system of criminal justice, any person hauled 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."
Gideon was granted a new trial, and with the assistance of counsel he was acquitted.
The decision effectively revolutionized the way lawyers were appointed to criminal cases, and in some areas resulted in the modern-day public defender system.
In Ventura County, the public defender's office was created in 1966 and today represents thousands of indigent clients charged with crimes ranging from simple theft to capital murder. Clients pay an upfront $25 registration fee. A defendant who is financially able is required to pay back the attorney costs, which run about $99 an hour.
"I tell them we provide a Dom Perignon defense on a Miller Lite budget," Clayman said.
The tall, plain-spoken lawyer has served as the county's public defender for the last 19 years. He is still awed by the job and the deputies who work for him. And he says indigent defense is more important than ever, as penalties for crimes in California have become more severe and budgets for law enforcement agencies have grown.
"The stakes are so much higher, and the need to have someone who can make sure there is a level playing field is so much greater," he said.
Chief Deputy Public Defender Neil Quinn has also spent 19 years in the office and now handles some of the most complex litigation, where the outcome can mean life or death for a client. Quinn said people tend to forget the role public defenders play in the justice system.
"I think in a calm moment, everybody with any moral sensibility recognizes the need for competent defense," Quinn said. "But what happens in moments of crisis -- of financial crisis, of emotional crisis -- is all of a sudden, these lofty ideals that people would like to hold to sort of get pushed aside."
Quinn is one of 49 deputy public defenders, who in law-and-order Ventura County have their work cut out for them. Compared to the rest of the state, criminal cases here more often go to trial because of the district attorney's reluctance to plea bargain.
Deputy public defenders handled 5,124 felony cases and 11,716 misdemeanor cases during fiscal 1999-2000. Additionally, they were appointed in 1,653 juvenile cases.
The office also handles noncriminal matters, representing clients who need mental health treatment. Deputies also regularly appear in probate court to represent seniors and dependent adults in conservatorship cases, to ensure that they are receiving proper care and not being swindled.
There are times the county public defender cannot legally represent a criminal defendant because of a conflict of interest, which is most often the case when there are multiple defendants.
In those circumstances, a judge typically appoints Conflict Defense Associates, a group of private attorneys, to represent the defendant.
The services of the public defender and Conflict Defense Associates consume the smallest portion of the county's criminal justice budget.
In fiscal 1999-2000, for instance, the two law offices operated on $9.2 million, according to county figures, compared with $149 million for the Sheriff's Department and police agencies and $23 million for the district attorney's office.
Deputy public defenders and district attorneys earn about $48,000 in starting pay. The top pay for a senior public defender is about $110,000, Clayman said.
Public defenders know they could earn two or three times that amount in private practice, but many say the job is not about the money. For them, it's about guys like Gideon.
"I didn't go to law school to get rich," Quinn said. "I went to law school because I liked the promise of the law, of the ideals that applied to all, whether rich or poor."