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Photo of Clarence Earl Gideon.
Charged with breaking and entering into a Panama City, Florida, pool hall, Clarence Earl Gideon Gideon, was denied his request that an attorney be appointed to represent him. The Supreme Court reversed his conviction, holding that defense counsel is "fundamental and essential" to a fair trial.

Reproduction courtesy of the Florida Department of Corrections
Gideon v. Wainwright (1963)

In Gideon v. Wainwright (1963), the Supreme Court ruled that the Constitution requires the states to provide defense attorneys to criminal defendants charged with serious offenses who cannot afford lawyers themselves. The case began with the 1961 arrest of Clarence Earl Gideon. Gideon was charged with breaking and entering into a Panama City, Florida, pool hall and stealing money from the hall's vending machines. At trial, Gideon, who could not afford a lawyer himself, requested that an attorney be appointed to represent him. He was told by the judge that Florida only provided attorneys to indigent defendants charged with crimes that might result in the death penalty if they were found guilty. After he was sentenced to five years in prison, Gideon filed a habeas corpus petition (or petition for release from unjust imprisonment) to the Florida Supreme Court, claiming that his conviction was unconstitutional because he lacked a defense attorney at trial. After the Florida Supreme Court denied his petition, Gideon appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which reviewed his case in 1963.

The Supreme Court, in a unanimous decision written by Justice Hugo Black, ruled that Gideon's conviction was unconstitutional because Gideon was denied a defense lawyer at trial. The Court ruled that the Constitution's Sixth Amendment gives defendants the right to counsel in criminal trials where the defendant is charged with a serious offense even if they cannot afford one themselves; it states that "in all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defence." Before the 1930s, the Supreme Court interpreted this language as only forbidding the state from denying a defense attorney at trial. From the 1930s on, however, the Court interpreted the amendment as requiring the state to provide defense attorneys in capital trials (see Powell v. Alabama [1932]).

In Gideon, the Court took this jurisprudence further, ruling that the Sixth Amendment requires states to provide defense attorneys to any indigent criminal defendant charged with a felony (generally a crime punishable by imprisonment of more than one year). First, the Court noted that the states, just like the federal government, are bound to the Sixth Amendment because the Fourteenth Amendment's Due Process Clause applies the key provisions of the Bill of Rights against the states. Second, the Court argued that the Sixth Amendment requires a state to provide defense lawyers if necessary because such lawyers are essential to a "fair trial." Observed Justice Black, "That government hires lawyers to prosecute and defendants who have the money hire lawyers to defend are the strongest indications of the widespread belief that lawyers in criminal courts are necessities, not luxuries." The Court noted that America's criminal justice system is "adversarial," meaning that the state assumes and uses its resources to establish the defendant's guilt before the defendant is proven guilty in a court of law. Because, in this adversarial system, "even the intelligent and educated layman has small and sometimes no skill in the science of law," the Court easily concluded that the presence of defense counsel is "fundamental and essential to fair trials" in the United States. Gideon was appointed counsel, eventually retried, and acquitted on all charges. In 1972, in Argersinger v. Hamlin, the Supreme Court further extended the right to legal counsel to include any defendant charged with a crime punishable by imprisonment.

Gideon v. Wainwright was part of the Supreme Court's innovative approach to criminal justice in the 1950s and 1960s. The Warren Court extended an unprecedented array of rights to criminal defendants, including the right to counsel in interrogations, the right to remain silent during arrest and questioning, and the right to be informed of these rights (see Miranda v. Arizona [1966]). The Court's affirmation of the constitutional rights of criminal defendants also included less famous cases. For example, in Griffin v. Illinois (1956), the Court ruled that states must provide trial transcripts to criminal defendants seeking appeal. In all of these cases, the Supreme Court recognized that, in a society of profoundly unequal resources, adversarial criminal justice, and ignorance of complex law, justice can only prevail if the state provides an indigent defendant with an attorney.

Alex McBride is a third year law student at Tulane Law School in New Orleans. He is articles editor on the TULANE LAW REVIEW and the 2005 recipient of the Ray Forrester Award in Constitutional Law. In 2007, Alex will be clerking with Judge Susan Braden on the United States Court of Federal Claims in Washington.

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