Gideon v. Wainwright, 372 U.S. 335 (1963)

Concepts: Right to Counsel/Rights of the Accused v. State Rights

Facts: Clarence Earl Gideon was arrested in 1961 and charged with breaking and entering a pool hall with intent to commit petty larceny (a felony). He did not have enough money for a lawyer and asked that one be appointed to defend him. The judge denied the request saying that under Florida state law counsel can be appointed only in a capital offense. Gideon was sentenced to five years in prison. He then filed a writ of certiorari (petition of appeal) to the Supreme Court of the United States asking for a case review. The Court granted Gideon's request and appointed Abe Fortas to represent him.

Issue: Whether the state of Florida violated Gideon's Sixth Amendment right to counsel, made applicable to the states by the Fourteenth Amendment, by not providing him with the assistance of counsel for his criminal defense.

Opinion: The Court ruled unanimously in Gideon's favor and held that the Fourteenth Amendment included state as well as federal defendants. The Court said that all states must provide an attorney in all felony and capital cases for people who cannot afford one. Through the Fourteenth Amendment due process clause, the Sixth Amendment guarantee of the right to counsel applies to the states. [Gideon was retried in Florida and found not guilty.]

Quotation from "Gideon's Trumpet"

"It has become almost axiomatic that the great rights which are secured for all of us by the Bill of Rights are constantly tested and retested in the courts by the people who live in the bottom of society's barrel ."

"In the future the name 'Gideon' will stand for the great principle that the poor are entitled to the same type of justice as those who are able to afford counsel. It is probably a good thing that it is immaterial and unimportant that Gideon is something of a 'nut,' that his maniacal distrust and suspicion lead him to the very borders of insanity. Upon the shoulders of such persons are our great rights carried."

"If an obscure Florida convict named Clarence Earl Gideon had not sat down in his prison cell...to write a letter to the Supreme Court...the vast machinery of American law would have gone on functioning undisturbed. But Gideon did write that letter, the Court did look into his case... and the whole course of American legal history has been changed."--Robert F. Kennedy