The framers formed this country with one sole document, the Constitution, which
they wrote with great wisdom and foresight. This bountiful wisdom arose from the unjust
treatment of King George to which the colonists were subject. Among these violations of
the colonists’ rights were inequitable trials that made a mockery of justice. As a result, a
fair trial of the accused was a right given to the citizens along with other equities that the
framers instilled in every other facet of this countrys government. These assurances of
the citizens rights stated in the bill of rights.
In the Sixth Amendment, it is stated that, In all criminal prosecutions, the
accused shall enjoy the right…to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defense. A first
reading of this phrase one might be think that this right, that which gives a person
accused of a crime to have lawyers for his defense, is common knowledge being that it is
among the most basic rights given to the citizenry of the public. However, the simple
manner in which this amendment is phrased creates a gray area, and subject to
interpretation under different circumstances. The legitimacy of the right to mount a legal
defense is further obscured by the Fourteenth Amendment which states, No State shall
make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges of citizens of the United
States. As a result, many questions begin to arise which seek to determine the true right
of the accused to the assistance of counsel. Should legal counsel be provided by the
government if the accused lacks the funds to assemble a counsel for his defense? Or, on
the other hand, does this amendment set the responsibility of assembling a defensive
counsel on the accused even if he or she lacks the funds to do so?
Also, do the states have the right to make their own legislation regarding the right
of the indigent accused to have counsel appointed to them in the state trials, or does the
Fourteenth Amendment prevent this? The Supreme Court was faced with answering these
questions in the case of Gideon v. Wainwright.
In June of 1961, Clarence Earl Gideon, a fifty year old petty thief, drifter, and
gambler who had spent much of his life in and out of jail was arrested in Panama City
Florida. He was charged with breaking into a poolroom one night in an effort to steal
beer, Coke, and coins from a cigarette machine (Goodman 62).
From the outset, Gideon insisted that he was innocent. His trial commenced in a
Florida courtroom in August of that year. Gideon informed the Judge that he was not
prepared for the trial to begin because he had not assembled a legal counsel in his
defense. He then requested that the court appoint counsel to represent him (Goodman
62). The Judge responded with the following statement:
Mr. Gideon, I am sorry, but I cannot appoint Counsel to represent you
in this case. Under the laws of the State of Florida, the only time
the Court can appoint Counsel to represent a defendant is when that
person is charged with a capital offense. I am sorry, but I will have
to deny your request to appoint Counsel to defend you in this case
(372 U.S. 335)
The trial continued, and Gideon directed his defense; but his efforts were futile as one
could expect from a common man with no legal education or experience. The jury
convicted him of the felonious charges and gave Gideon the maximum five year sentence
(Goodman 62). At the time of Gideons trial in the Florida court the right to legal counsel
ensured by the Sixth Amendment was only applicable to federal cases, and states had the
right to handle the matter of the appointment of legal counsel to the defense in state cases
at their discretion (Asch, 135). This practice was an effect of the outcome of the United
States Supreme Court case of Betts v. Brady decided in 1942. In this case, an
unemployed farm worker in Maryland named Smith Betts was charged with robbery
requested that the court appoint counsel to his defense. The judge denied this request on
the grounds that in that county it was not practice in that county for the court to appoint
counsel to poor defendants only in capital cases. Like Gideon, Betts conducted his own
defense and was convicted and sentenced to eight years in prison. Betts sent an appeal to
the Supreme Court, but the Court ruled against Betts because, the courts opinion was in
the great majority of states, it has been the considered judgment of the people, their
representatives, and their courts that the appointment of counsel is not a fundamental
right, essential to a fair trial (Goodman 64).
With the precedent set by the ruling of Brady v. Betts, the denial of the
appointment of counsel by the trial court in the Gideon case was issued with just reason.
Even though many states and the federal government allowed for the appointment of
counsel for impoverished defendants, Florida as well as many other southern states did
not (Goodman 62). The only instance in which Counsel could be appointed to defendants
under Florida law was in capital cases, and thus the reason for the denial of Gideons
request for Counsel (Asch 135).
In pursuit of an appeal, Gideon studied law books while serving out his sentence
in state prison. Gideon filed a petition for habeus corpus in the Florida Supreme Court.
This petition sought to invalidate his conviction and sentence on the basis that the trial
courts refusal to appoint counsel denied him of rights enumerated in the Constitution of
the United States and the federal government. Upon consideration of the Florida Supreme
Court, but without an opinion, Gideons petition for habeus corpus was denied (372 U.S.
After the Florida Supreme Court ruled against Gideons petition for habeus
corpus, Gideon appealed his case to the United States Supreme Court in forma pauperis,
which means that if the case is approved to be considered the government would provide
a lawyer and all other expenses for the consideration of his case in the Supreme Court
(Wilson 431). The Supreme court selected the case to be considered.
Gideon presented his case before the Supreme court in January 1963. The basis of
the argument was that it was unconstitutional for the states to create their own state
legislation which decides the circumstances under which the court appoints counsel to
the defense, and that his Sixth Amendment right to counsel was violated. Gideon argued
that these pieces of state legislation are unlawful on the ground that they abridge the right
to have the assistance of counsel for defense that is given by the Sixth Amendment. This
argument was strongly supported by the Fourteenth Amendment which states No State
shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of
citizens of the United States… These arguments were considered before the court in an
attempt to earn an appeal, a new fair trial for Gideon (372 U.S. 335).
The Supreme Courts decision was made in March. All nine justices concluded to
reverse Gideons conviction on the basis that he was denied due process by reason of the
denial of the appointment of legal counsel to his defense (372 U.S. 335). The unanimous
decision was delivered by Justice Black, who wrote:
“…In our adversary system of criminal justice, any person hailed
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. Governments, both state and federal, quite properly
spend vast sums of money to establish machinery to try defendants
accused of crime. Lawyers to prosecute are everywhere deemed essential
to protect the publics interest in an orderly society. Similarly
there are few defendants charged with crime, few indeed, who fail to
hire the best lawyers they can get to prepare and present their
defense. 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. From the 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” (372 U.S. 335).
This decision meant that Gideon received a new trial. A trial in which he had equitable
representation by a competent lawyer. In Gideons retrial, his court appointed attorney
fulfilled his duties with such excellence that Gideon was acquitted.
This decision had many profound implications. For starters, all hundreds of other
prisoners who had been convicted without benefit of defense counsel won their release
Florida jails, as well as the jails of other states (Goodman 66). This may be disconcerting
because some of these prisoners may have been guilty of their crimes or hardened by
prison, and these prisoners are being casually released into society. The State of Florida
should have retried these prisoners instead of releasing them. However, the retrial
process brings up another question – If a prisoner had a trial but was denied legal counsel,
does it violate the section of the Fifth Amendment, which states that, Nor shall any
person be subject for the same offense to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb. The
Fifth Amendment guarantees the right of a person who is acquitted to not be tried again
for the same crime. Since the prosecutor cannot appeal like a convict can, or try these
prisoners again in a new equitable and legitimate trial, does it mean that these freed
prisoners will not be retried?
That is not all the decision accomplished, however. The most important
implication set fort in this trial is the further proof of the legitimacy of the dominance of
the federal government over the states. The power of the Federal government has grown
since the Civil War, in which legitimacy of the federal government was firmly
established. The southern states felt that the true power was invested in the state, and that
their secession was justified. After the defeat of these secessionist states, the legitimacy
of the Federal government was established, and has grown since that time. The marker of
this is the Fourteenth Amendment which prohibits the states from enacting and enforcing
any law which abridges the rights of the citizens set forth by the Bill of Rights. This
theme fits the Gideon case because the ruling meant that the states must give the Sixth
Amendment guarantee to the defendant who is accused of violating a state law. This
means that the state no longer has the power of discretion in the execution of its own
laws. However, in this case, the dominance of the federal government is all necessary and
proper in order to create unity in the ensure that the rights of the citizens set forth by the
constitution are not infringed by the state.
Goodman, Elaine and Walter. The Rights of the People. Toronto: Doubleday, 1971.
Asch, Sindey H. Civil Rights and Responsibilites under the Constitution. New York:
Arco Publishing Company, 1968.
Gideon v. Wainwright, 372 U.S. 335 (1963).
Wilson, James, and John J. DiIulio, Jr. American Government, institutions and Policies.
Lexington, Massachusetts: D.C. Heath and Company, 1995.
Justice Under Law: the Gideon Case. Videocassette. Encyclopedia Britanica Educational
Barker, Lucius, and Twiley Barker, Jr. Civil Liberties and the Constitution. New Jersey:
Prentince Hall, 1990.