Walter Mondale, the Minnesota resident and former candidate for president of the United States, was a staunch advocate for providing legal services to poor people charged with crimes and I firmly believe that his legacy will live on.
I remember Mondale through my wife who took a leave of absence from her work as a copy editor at The Inquirer Newspaper of Philadelphia to work for Geraldine Ferraro, the first woman endorsed by a political party to run for vice-president. Wendy, who passed away three years ago this month, drove in a calvacade of volunteers assisting celebreties who met and supported the congresswoman from New York. She met Mary Travers – of Peter, Paul and Mary – who asked for a side trip to eat a cheese steak at Pat’s Steaks in South Philadelphia, which Mary claimed she heard so much about!
Even though Mondale served as vice president under Jimmy Carter and ran against and lost to Ronald Reagan for president, he also served as an attorney general for the state of Minnesota. It was in 1962 that he encouraged more then 20 attorney generals throughout the country to join in an amicus brief in support of a poor man from Florida who asked for but was denied the assistance of a lawyer for his criminal trial.
Clarence Earl Gideon was found guilty when he went to trial and was sentenced to five years in jail. The pool hall owner claimed the defendant stole $5 in change along with some beer and soda and $50 from a jukebox.
While in prison he used prison stationary and a prison-approved pencil to write an appeal to the US Supreme Court. (The actual hand-written appeal is on display at the Constitution Center in Philadelphia!)
Mondale convinced 22 other attorney generals throughout the United States to join in the amicus brief in support of Gideon. Some believe it helped to sway the court which decided unanimously to grant relief to the poor Gideon, who was in his early 50s and considered to be a drifter when convicted in 1961. (He had no more then an 8th grade education who ran away from home when he was in middle schol.)
The landmark decision – in a case cited as Gideon v Wainwright – lead to the creation of the vast public defender system in the United States. I served as a criminal defense lawyer for 20 years in Philadelphia and owe the creation of my job to Gideon.
Well what happened after the court case? Gideon – such an unlikely hero – was appointed a lawyer to represent him at another trial and he was found not guilty! In 1980 Henry Fonda played the part of Gideon in a made for television movie called “Gideon’s Trumpet.”
Thank you Walter Mondale for your support of the underdog and your compassion for the poor in our society.