Sara Mayeux wins 2017 Cromwell Article Prize for best legal history article

Oct 31, 2017

Professor Sara MayeuxSara Mayeux has won the 2017 Cromwell Article Prize, which recognizes the best article in American legal history published by an early career scholar. The prize is sponsored by the William Nelson Cromwell Foundation and administered by the American Society of Legal History, which selects each year’s winner. Articles published in 2016 were considered for the 2017 prize.

Mayeux’s article, “What Gideon Did,” published by the Columbia Law Review, assesses the impact of Gideon v. Wainwright, the Supreme Court case that established the right of anyone charged with a crime to the services of a publicly funded defense attorney.

“Sara Mayeux pulls off an impressive feat in teaching us something important and new about one of the nation’s most iconic Supreme Court cases,” the committee announcing Mayeux’s prize wrote. “This is the kind of history that forces students and researchers to rethink existing frameworks.”

Mayeux’s exploration of Gideon involved both extensive archival research and the development of an original argument. “Many accounts of Gideon’s legacy focus on what it has not accomplished,” Mayeux said. “Criminal legal scholars, advocates and journalists claim that Gideon has failed to guarantee meaningful legal help for poor people charged with crimes. Scholars of constitutional theory say that Gideon did not represent a significant doctrinal shift; it simply imposed a pre-existing national consensus that people charged with crimes should have access to competent legal representation on a few states that didn’t already provide public defenders.”

By reviewing Gideon in the context of the history of public defenders, Mayeux exposes both doctrinal and institutional changes the case has inspired since 1963, when the Supreme Court decided the case. “Gideon shifted the legal profession’s policy consensus on indigent defense from a charity model toward a public model,” she said. “Within 10 years, this new consensus had transformed criminal practice nationwide. Hundreds of public defender offices had opened, and lawyers’ presence in low-level criminal proceedings had greatly expanded.”

But despite these changes, public defense’s private-sector origin continues to have important consequences. Mayeux believes one answer to the question of why public defense continues to be underfunded more than 50 years after Gideon lies in its origins as a service offered by private charities. “Long before Gideon, lawyers themselves had framed indigent defense work as low-status, low-paying and less than fully professional,” she said. “That image of public defense continued after the transition of criminal defense to a publicly funded service.”

She also suggests that Gideon’s impact was limited, both in fact and in perception, by “the tensions inherent in an attempt to provide large-scale legal assistance through government bureaucracies.” Gideon presented states and municipalities with an unfunded mandate to start or expand public defenders’ offices, which led to inevitable complaints that these offices were underfunded and the attorneys staffing them overworked.

Mayeux’s article offers a historical perspective on the public policy debate about indigent defense and, more generally, on the interaction between economic inequality and the criminal justice system. She proposes examining Gideon from a historical perspective to answer a broad array of pragmatic and policy-related questions. “What work has Gideon been doing in the criminal courts, if not the work indigent defense advocates think it should be doing?” she asked. “What political and social structures have enabled the rhetoric about the right to effective representation and the reality of the indigent defense system to become so divergent?”


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