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1963 Twenty-five Years Ago

April 2023
1min read

“In our adversary system of criminal justice,” said Supreme Court Justice Hugo L. Black on March 18, “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.”

The year before, fifty-one-year-old Clarence Earl Gideon, a down-and-out electrician, sometime gambler, and onetime petty burglar, went on trial for breaking into a Panama City, Florida, pool hall. Gideon had asked for a lawyer and been refused. He had no choice but to conduct his own defense. Despite the rather flimsy evidence arrayed against him, he was found guilty and sentenced to five years in a state penitentiary.

With more pluck than legal perspicacity, Gideon petitioned the Supreme Court, contending that his civil rights had been violated. His otherwise unexceptional case raised an important constitutional question. The Bill of Rights stipulated that “in all criminal prosecutions the accused shall … have the Assistance of Counsel for his defense.” But this applied only to federal cases. In 1868, however, the Fourteenth Amendment deemed that “no state shall … deprive any person of life, liberty, or property without due process of law.”

But what, exactly, constituted “due process”? Many legal scholars argued that the Fourteenth Amendment incorporated the Bill of Rights and therefore, among other things, required states to appoint counsel to those who could not afford to hire a lawyer. But in Betts v. Brady (1942) the Court ruled that in state criminal prosecutions, refusing a defendant counsel represented a denial of due process only under “special circumstances.” It was left to the states to determine special circumstances on a case-by-case basis.

Gideon, however, did not claim any special circumstances. He simply and firmly believed that a fair trial was not possible without defense counsel. And many agreed with him. By the time of Gideon v. Wainwright , thirty-seven states provided the indigent with free counsel in all felony cases. Dissatisfaction with Betts was widespread in the legal community.

The Supreme Court ruled unanimously in Gideon’s favor. Reading from his opinion, Justice Black said, “Lawyers to prosecute are everywhere deemed essential to protect the public’s interest in an orderly society. Similarly, there are few defendants charged with a crime … who fail to hire the best lawyers they can to prepare and present their defenses. 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 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.”

Gideon’s case was remanded to the Florida Supreme Court. He again went on trial, this time with counsel. He was found not guilty.

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