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Gideon v. Wainwright (1963)

AP.GOPO:
LOR‑3.B (LO)
,
LOR‑3.B.4 (EK)

Key points

  • In 1961, a Florida court refused to provide a public defender for Clarence Earl Gideon, who was accused of robbery. Gideon appealed his conviction to the US Supreme Court on the grounds that the Fourteenth Amendment incorporated the Sixth Amendment’s right to counsel to the states.
  • The Supreme Court ruled in Gideon’s favor, requiring states to provide a lawyer to any defendant who could not afford one.

Background of the case

In 1961, Clarence Earl Gideon stood trial in Florida, accused of robbing a pool hall. Gideon was
indigent
and could not afford a lawyer. He requested that the court provide one for him, but Florida only provided lawyers for defendants accused of
capital offenses
. At this time, the Sixth Amendment right to legal counsel applied only to the federal government, not to the states.
Gideon, forced to defend himself, lost his case. The court sentenced him to five years in prison. While he was in prison, Gideon educated himself about the law and became convinced that the Fourteenth Amendment’s due process clause incorporated the Sixth Amendment right to counsel to the states. He appealed to the Florida Supreme Court, which upheld his conviction.
Finally, he mailed a handwritten letter to the US Supreme Court. He requested that the Court review his case and appoint a lawyer to defend him.
Image of Gideon's hand-written petition to the Supreme Court, which is written on Department of Corrections stationery.
The first page of Gideon’s handwritten petition to the US Supreme Court. Source: Wikimedia Commons
The Court took up his case in 1963 and appointed Abe Fortas, a renowned lawyer and future Supreme Court justice, to defend Gideon.

The Constitutional question at stake

Did the Sixth Amendment’s right to counsel apply to the states?

Decision

Yes. The Fourteenth Amendment, which prevents states from depriving citizens of life, liberty and property without due process of law, applies the Sixth Amendment to the states. The Court reasoned that the assistance of a lawyer was necessary to ensure a fair trial, and so states must provide counsel to defendants too poor to afford lawyers.
Abe Fortas argued that Clarence Darrow, considered one of the greatest American criminal lawyers of all time, had hired a lawyer for himself when he had legal trouble. If even the most capable lawyer required the assistance of another lawyer to ensure a fair trial, then certainly an ordinary person without deep knowledge of the law required one.
After the Supreme Court case, Gideon’s original case was retried in Florida, this time with the assistance of a court-appointed lawyer. Gideon was acquitted.

Why does Gideon v. Wainwright matter?

The Gideon case incorporated the Sixth Amendment into the states, meaning that all state courts must provide lawyers for defendants who cannot afford to hire their own.
This is one of many cases that relied upon the doctrine of selective incorporation. Citing the Fourteenth Amendment’s due process clause, the Supreme Court has applied provisions of the Bill of Rights (which originally only constrained the actions of the federal government) to the states. Selective incorporation prevents state governments from infringing on individual freedoms.
Check your understanding
“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.”
-Justice Hugo Black
Which of the following statements is most consistent with the author’s argument in this passage?
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What do you think?

Why has the Supreme Court interpreted the Fourteenth Amendment to mean that provisions of the Bill of Rights apply to the states? What is the impact of this doctrine?
Which other rights included in the Bill of Rights aim to protect people accused of a crime?

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