04/30/2013 11:09 am ET Updated Jun 30, 2013

Gideon and the Constitution's Fugue

On one of the first sunny, warm days of Spring, I was in the dank basement in the oldest division of Cook County Jail in Chicago. Built in the 1920s, Division 1 is a dungeon of cinderblock and linoleum. The ceilings are low; the atmosphere is oppressive. There is no private visiting area: lawyers and inmates sit in a large room at metal tables and talk, the noise pinging off the white walls.

As I waited for sheriffs to bring my client, something caught my ear. It was a sound I recognized: a fugue.

I am a lawyer, a public defender. I defend people accused of crimes who cannot afford to hire an attorney. That kind of job came into being 50 years ago this year, when the U.S. Supreme Court in the landmark case Gideon v. Wainwright ruled that people facing jail have a right to counsel, whether they can afford one or not.

The job of a public defender can be hard. The people I represent can be dangerous and difficult. I go to crime scenes in some of Chicago's worst neighborhoods. I visit this bleak house, the jail.

I also sing -- in a church choir. We rehearse on Thursday nights. At the end of a gritty work day that scrapes my soul, the music is healing balm. Twenty-five other singers and I breathe together and pour out beauty: Palestrina, spirituals, Southern folk hymns, Mozart. And, sometimes, fugues.

A fugue is a composition in which a short melody is introduced by one part and successively taken up by others. One phrase layers over the others, part by part.

I heard a fugue from the lawyers sitting nearby at the other tables in that visiting room. I knew they were also public defenders; they had the same manila file folders with the same lettering as mine. They leaned in to their clients, young men clad in khaki scrubs, and read from police reports, one phrase floating over another:

"...A/O's observed the subject exit the vehicle, look in our direction and drop a clear plastic baggie containing numerous tinfoil packets..."

"Offender #1 ran Westbound on North Ave. holding his waistband..."

It was a symphony of the Constitution, a song of the promise of Gideon fulfilled. In this 50th anniversary year, much has been said of the ways our criminal justice system has fallen short of that promise, but I didn't see it that day. I saw men and women in a dark place, bringing hope.

At the end of the day I heard the fugue in jail, my choir rehearsed an anthem whose words are from 1 Corinthians 13: "Love beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things. Love never fails."

When I sang them, I thought of the client I had gone to see that day, a young man with a soft voice and a worried expression. He faces several counts of aggravated battery and resisting police, charges which could send him to prison for up to seven years.

I went to see him to go over the statements of witnesses to his alleged crime and his own written statement about what had happened.

His statement was exactly what he'd told me from the beginning: He was walking down the street when he saw a marked police car. He knew there was a warrant out for him, so he ran and hid in a garage. Police chased him and pushed their way into the place he was hiding. He never hit the officers, never struggled. "That's the God's truth, I swear," he said.

"I believe you," I told him. "I've always believed you." Something came over him then, the thing that often happens when I say those words to my clients. They soften; their guard drops. They breathe deep, as if a heavy stone they'd been pinned under had been lifted off their chest. Sometimes my clients -- grown men -- start to cry.

I understood for the first time: Believing in them, speaking up for them, as Gideon calls us to do, is a way of saying, "I see you. I see who you really are. I know the truth of you."

That, too, is part of Gideon's legacy and the improvisation of love woven into the Constitution's song.