Gideon v. Wainwright, the watershed moment

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Gideon's petitionClarence Earl Gideon was arrested in Florida in 1961, and charged with a felony for breaking and entering.[1] The circumstances of Gideon’s trial were eerily similar to those Betts had faced in his trial in Carroll County, Maryland, in 1942. When Mr. Gideon appeared in court, he asked the judge to appoint counsel for him, as he lacked the funds to hire an attorney on his own. The judge explained that, under Florida law, the only time the judge was authorized to make such an appointment was when the defendant was charged with a capital offense; Mr. Gideon was only charged with a felony offense, and so he had no right to appointed counsel. Forced to conduct his own defense, he did about as well as any layman could in his trial – he made an opening statement, cross-examined witnesses, and presented witnesses of his own – but the jury found him guilty and he was sentenced to five years in prison. Just as Mr. Betts had done 20 years before, Mr. Gideon appealed his case to the U.S. Supreme Court on the grounds that the state of Florida had denied him his Sixth Amendment right to the assistance of counsel.

The right of criminal defendants to have lawyers appointed for them at public expense had already been decided, of course, in the Court’s Betts decision in 1942. The intervening years since Betts had seen its fair share of controversy as the question lingered – resolved, but unsatisfactorily so. Litigation continued in both state and federal courts. And so, to resolve the issue, the Supreme Court decided to review Mr. Gideon’s appeal, and appointed an attorney to present his side of the argument before the Court.

Clarence Earl Gideon

The stark similarities of Mr. Betts’ original trial and that of Mr. Gideon were not lost on the Court. In fact, historians and legal scholars have since argued that the justices of the U.S. Supreme Court had been keeping an eye out for such a scenario, and for reasons the Court explained in its unanimous decision in 1963’s Gideon v. Wainwright: “Since the facts and circumstances of the two cases are so nearly indistinguishable, we think the Betts v. Brady holding, if left standing, would require us to reject Gideon’s claim that the Constitution guarantees him the assistance of counsel.” The Court was not interested in nibbling around the edges of the issue; it was looking to settle the issue once and for all. And so, the question it posed at the outset in order to frame the debate, was about as simple as it gets: “Should this Court’s holding in Betts v. Brady . . . be reconsidered?” It would eventually answer its own question with a resounding “yes.”

In explaining its conclusions, the Court famously stated: “reason and reflection, require us to recognize that, in our adversary system of criminal justice, any person haled into court, who is too poor to hire a lawyer, cannot be assured a fair trial unless counsel is provided for him. This seems to us to be an obvious truth.” Simultaneously drawing from its decision in Powell v. Alabama, regarding the necessity of counsel manifested in the right to a fair hearing, while also attacking the historical record used by the Court to justify its Betts decision, the Gideon Court continued: “The right of one charged with crime to counsel may not be deemed fundamental and essential to fair trials in some countries, but it is in ours. From the very beginning, our state and national constitutions and laws have laid great emphasis on procedural and substantive safeguards designed to assure fair trials before impartial tribunals in which every defendant stands equal before the law. This noble ideal cannot be realized if the poor man charged with crime has to face his accusers without a lawyer to assist him.” Lawyers are fundamentally essential to a fair hearing. Therefore, they must be provided to criminal defendants who cannot afford the cost of representation on their own.

Although Gideon applied most immediately to the 15 states not guaranteeing counsel to felony defendants, its impact would be absolutely massive as precedent for numerous future cases. But, because Clarence Earl Gideon was charged with a felony and not a misdemeanor, the Supreme Court limited its holding to the facts of the case before it and therefore limited the direct legal impact of its decision to felony trials. Misdemeanor courts, however – even in the 1960’s – were the workhorses of the criminal justice system, just as they are today. And so, by leaving open the question of whether the constitutional right to public counsel should be extended to misdemeanor cases as well as felonies, the Court just about guaranteed that, before long, the right to counsel question would be raised to its attention once more. If the right to counsel was fundamental and essential to a fair hearing whenever an individual was accused of a crime carrying a lengthy prison sentence, why should it be any different for those facing shorter jail sentences?

With the sweeping rhetoric it used to justify the reversal of its own previous decision – a decision, after all, that had relied upon the same fundamental fairness test at the heart of the debate over access to counsel in felonies – Gideon’s obvious truth would guide the Court over the next 50 years as it explored, time and again, the full extent of the right to counsel obligations of state government.

Next, we talk about how state and local governments actually provided the legal services now mandatory under federal law, and how the Gideon decision began a long-term shift in policy, centering on a relatively new idea: the professional legal defender for the public.

(Image of Gideon’s handwritten petition to the Supreme Court, via the Free Legal Dictionary. Image of Clarence Earl Gideon, via Florida Memory.)


[1] For the particulars of Clarence Earl Gideon’s story, we drew from the Supreme Court’s opinion in Gideon v. Wainwright, 372 U.S. 335 (1963). We recommend Anthony Lewis’ book, Gideon’s Trumpet (1964), for a fantastic recounting of Gideon’s travails and the Court’s response – all from the perspective of a contemporary to the events.