On Thursday, Judge Eward L. Hogshire addressed a packed Charlottesville Circuit courtroom—not an unusual occurrence. But he didn’t do it from the bench.
Hogshire, dressed in his usual bowtie but not his usual robes, offered a few words from a lectern, the guest of honor at a ceremony held by the Citizens Advisory Committee for the Charlottesville-Albemarle Public Defender Office, which awarded the judge the first-ever Clarence Earl Gideon Award.
The honor was created to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Gideon v. Wainwright, the landmark Supreme Court case that established Americans’ right to legal representation regardless of their ability to pay for it, and the Committee intends to bestow the award on a community member who isn’t a public defender, but “acknowledges the critical role the public defense function plays in ensuring equal justice.”
Clarence Earl Gideon was—as was repeated a few times at yesterday’s ceremony—a petty thief and a repeat criminal. So why elevate his memory?
Because in him, said Charlottesville attorney Steven D. Rosenfield, the American legal system has a powerful symbol of the scope of justice. In 1962, after failing to convince a Florida judge to appoint him a lawyer and after his calls for assistance from the FBI and the state courts were ignored, the jailed, 51-year-old Gideon mailed a handwritten, five-page petition to the Supreme Court, claiming he was denied due process. In an unprecedented move, the country’s highest court heard the case, and in ruling in his favor, it guaranteed the right to counsel to even the poorest citizens.
Citzens Advisory Committee members said Hogshire was a fitting first recipient of the award meant to honor the 1963 decision, and highlight local efforts to keep its promise alive. As a teacher, a lawyer, and a judge, they said, he’s always tried to bring the courts closer to the ideal of “justice for all.”
Committee member Eddie Harris told the packed courtroom that, like others who found themselves before Hogshire’s bench, his relationship with the judge didn’t have the smoothest start.
“But he challenged me,” Harris said, and not just when it came to the law. “He challenged me as a human being.” He said the greatest proof of Hogshire’s commitment to watching out for the rights of citizens was the number of people present whose first meeting with him was in the courtroom. Harris said when he put the call out about the award, the crowds came.
“We’ve got brothers here who came from the same place I did,” he said.
Hogshire called the award unexpected and undeserved, and said that even 50 years after the landmark Supreme Court case, the struggle to adequately serve indigent continues.
“See the scales of justice on this thing?” he asked, holding up the event program, which featured the blindfolded Themis, symbol of justic, holding sword and scales. “They’re still not equal with respect to Gideon.”
At the iced-tea reception that followed the awards ceremony, Citizens’ Advisory Committee Chair Rauzelle Smith echoed that sentiment, and said it’s more important than ever to draw attention to the needs of underfunded public defenders’ offices. Virginia law now allows municipalities to subsidize their local offices, which are struggling by with less and less federal support. But during the last budget cycle, both the city and county declined to do so.
“But we’ll be back,” he said.
And in the meantime, those who support the work of local public defenders will keep honoring members of the community who uphold the same ideals. “That is why we come together to recognize those who inspire us,” write Steven Benjamin, president of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, in a letter read aloud at the ceremony. “The strength of Gideon, we realize, is the strength of us all.”