- Associated Press - Sunday, April 19, 2015

GULFPORT, Fla. (AP) - Bruce Jacob, a bright young lawyer from Florida, had landed the case of his career.

He was 27, just three years out of law school. He had seen Washington, D.C., once in his life, driving through on the way to somewhere else. Now he was flying to the city to argue a case before the U.S. Supreme Court.

This was a big one, even by high court standards. The opposing counsel was Abe Fortas, a future Supreme Court justice. The chief justice was the legendary Earl Warren. The case would wind up in history books.

It would also inspire “Gideon’s Trumpet,” a best-seller written by a New York Times journalist, and a television movie starring Henry Fonda.

Jacob, on Jan. 15, 1963, walked up the sweeping marble steps and passed between the towering marble columns. The blond-haired, lanky fellow who used to run the half-mile at Sarasota High School entered the nation’s most hallowed legal turf, nervously hoping he wouldn’t mess up.

He delivered arguments he had honed for months, and answered dozens of rapid-fire questions from the justices.

But there was one thing Jacob held back, one opinion that remained unspoken.

He really believed in the other side.

____

A courtyard at the Stetson University College of Law in Gulfport features a line of palm trees that tower toward the sky, the Florida version of marble columns.

Inside a second-floor classroom, students in a criminal procedure class take their seats. They set down water bottles and coffee thermoses and unfold laptops.

Jacob, now a white-haired professor, prepares to speak.

Students in every American law school learn the famous 1963 case Gideon vs. Wainwright. Very few get to hear the details from someone who was there.

Gideon was Clarence Earl Gideon, convicted of breaking into the Bay Harbor Pool Room in Florida’s Panhandle, the professor explains. During his trial, Gideon asked for the assistance of a lawyer. The judge said no. Gideon, acting as his own attorney, lost his case and was sentenced to five years in prison.

How could a man with no legal training like Gideon be forced to represent himself?

Up to the early 1960s, it happened all the time. Although many state and local governments voluntarily provided attorneys to the poor, and Supreme Court rulings required it in certain cases, there was no universal rule giving lawyers to all criminal defendants.

The Gideon case was about to change that.

Gideon filed a handwritten appeal, saying the court should have provided him a lawyer, and it went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Early in his lecture, Jacob playfully refers to his client: “The bad guy, the state of Florida.”

Because back in 1963, Jacob was arguing against Gideon.

Somebody had to argue that it really wasn’t necessary for the Supreme Court to guarantee attorneys for everyone accused of a crime.

But Jacob has said for decades that even in 1963 he believed criminal defendants should have legal representation.

“If someone had said to me, ‘Which side of the case would you prefer to argue?’ I’d have said I would have preferred to represent Gideon,” he tells the students.

So how could he take the opposite side?

____

Jacob is calm and conversational with the class, occasionally displaying black-and-white photos of Gideon, various attorneys and judges.

He explains that after graduating from Stetson’s law school in 1959, he landed a job in Tallahassee, working on appeals under the Florida attorney general. He had been in the office just under two years when his boss handed him the Gideon case.

He says he’s not sure why he, the youngest lawyer in his group, got the big case. Maybe it was his passion and talent for legal research. He remained on Gideon even after leaving the attorney general’s office in 1962 for a law firm in Bartow that would later become known as Holland & Knight.

Jacob researched parts of the case in the courthouse in Bartow. Sometimes he and his wife, Ann, drove to Stetson’s law library in Pinellas County, or to Tallahassee to the Florida Supreme Court. The building wasn’t open on weekends, but a friendly clerk had given Jacob a key.

He and Ann spent hours in the basement library. When Jacob found a case he wanted, Ann would copy it onto index cards. Later, at home, she typed out the notes. There were no photocopiers.

The Jacobs arrived in Washington with a huge suitcase filled with dozens of law books. The day before the argument, Jacob was formally admitted to practice law before the Supreme Court. Chief Justice Warren leaned over the bench and welcomed him.

On the big day, Fortas first made his argument in favor of Gideon, and then Jacob followed.

“The intensity of it was very, very high,” Jacob tells the students.

The justices peppered Jacob with 92 questions and comments in about an hour.

“I had great difficulty keeping up,” Jacob says. “One justice would ask a question. I would begin to answer it and then another judge would ask a different question.”

In his argument, Jacob referred to a previous Supreme Court decision written by Hugo Black.

“Justice Black got angry, he got red in the face,” not liking what Jacob said about Black’s decision. Justice John Marshall Harlan, tried to rein him in from another argument, telling him “careful now, don’t go too far.”

Jacob told the justices that Gideon had competently represented himself and received a fair trial. He said the states should have the right to develop their own rules. He argued that huge practical difficulties could arise from forcing governments to provide lawyers in all criminal cases.

Two months later, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously in favor of Gideon. The ruling helped establish that all people charged with crimes have a right to an attorney. As a result, public defenders’ offices sprang up around the country.

During his 80-minute lecture, Jacob does not display any hint of anger, any displeasure that he wound up on the losing side of a historic case. He explains to his students that in many ways, this is a fundamental part of a lawyer’s job.

“It’s a tradition: Lawyers should be willing to take either side of the case, even though he or she personally is not totally in agreement with the client or what the client has done.”

He says Anthony Lewis, the New York Times reporter who wrote Gideon’s Trumpet, may not have fully understood that.

“When the book was published, I was disappointed by the portrayal of me and my actions,” Jacob tells the students. For one thing, he says, the book made it sound like the state was overmatched by Fortas, the future Supreme Court Justice.

“I think the reason I was not treated well in the book was . a nonlawyer doesn’t understand that part of a lawyer’s obligation is to take a case whether he agrees with the case or not,” he said.

Not all lawyers take that approach. Some will only work one side of an issue - for abortion rights or against them, for example.

To Jacob, arguing well for either side improves the debate. A better argument on both sides, supported by evidence, leads to better decisions and better law. This, he says, is the essence of law. This is why it makes sense for a man to go to the Supreme Court and argue vigorously for the side he doesn’t believe in.

____

Six years later, Jacob returned to the Supreme Court when he represented a bank robber who claimed that illegally seized evidence had been used against him. This time, Jacob won.

He continued his love of legal research, picking up additional law degrees from Harvard and Northwestern universities, and the University of Florida. He taught law at Emory, Ohio State, Mercer and Stetson universities. He served as Stetson’s law dean for 13 years.

He is still married to Ann, who became a lawyer herself.

Jacob, who turned 80 recently, still handles cases, mostly appeals. He works many days in a cluttered office filled with books and boxes of files.

Propped on top of a filing cabinet is a plaque from the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers: the “Champion of Indigent Defense Award.”

That’s right. The man who went to the Supreme Court to argue against attorneys for the poor later received a national award to honor his career of providing legal services to the poor.

“We feel that it is particularly appropriate to recognize your steadfast advocacy on behalf of indigent defendants on the 50th anniversary of the Gideon decision,” the association president said.

The award noted many of Jacob’s accomplishments, including helping to found legal assistance programs at Emory and Harvard, and taking on innumerable cases for free for poor defendants.

The award means a lot to him, something that comes out in his lecture.

He explains to his students that Stetson Law professor Ellen Podgor nominated him for the award, without his knowledge. In the process, she contacted Anthony Lewis, the author of “Gideon’s Trumpet,” the man who portrayed Jacob and the attorney general’s office as overmatched.

Podgor asked Lewis if he could write something about Jacob. Lewis did not hesitate, dashing off an email that said:

“From the moment Bruce Jacob got the assignment as an assistant attorney general of Florida to oppose Clarence Earl Gideon’s claim of a constitutional right to counsel, he knew he really hoped that that right would be established by the Supreme Court. It was. And then Bruce Jacob devoted much of his legal life to making that right a reality in courts across the country. It was a noble endeavor, bringing luster to the legal profession and to Bruce Jacob.”

Lewis, it turns out, was not well. About a week after writing the email, the author died.

Jacob hesitates, choking up as he shares the story with his students. He seems on the verge of tears. The emotion is palpable, plain to everyone in the room.

Lewis may have understood him after all.

Just for a moment, the man who lectures and argues for a living cannot find any words.

___

Information from: Tampa Bay Times (St. Petersburg, Fla.), https://www.tampabay.com.

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