Gideon v Wainright – Remembering W. Fred Turner
W. Fred Turner’s name is not a household word. But his work, as the lawyer chosen to represent Clarence Earl Gideon after the Supreme Court made its landmark 1963 ruling in Gideon v. Wainright guarantees him a place in the heart and spirit of American law and justice.
In March of this year, we celebrated the 40th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Gideon ruling, establishing the right to counsel for indigent defendants in criminal proceedings. This decision caused the most significant transformation in American criminal justice history, and brought about a profound shift in social justice: recognition that every defendant, whether wealthy or poor, is guaranteed the right to counsel. At its core, Gideon is the promise of justice for even the poorest and most vulnerable citizens in our society.
But it was Turner’s subsequent representation that won Gideon an acquittal, and gave life and meaning to the decision. Turner did the work that kept Gideon’s promise. As Earl Warren observed, it is the spirit and not the form of the law that keeps justice alive. It can also be said that it is the upholding of the law through its diligent, competent practice that sustains our justice system.
Fred Turner died on Sunday, November 23, at his home in Panama City, Fla. His passing gives us pause, to reflect on how well we have met or missed the mark set by the Gideon decision some 40 years ago. The meaning of Aristotle’s comment, that it is in justice that the ordering of society is centered, is made clear in Turner’s efforts for Clarence Gideon. His work brought justice to one of the least among us, giving strength and steel to the legal system that is our nation’s backbone.