"The right of one charged with a crime to counsel may not be deemed fundamental and essential to fair trials in some countries, but it is in ours." — Justice Hugo Black
In 1961, Clarence Earl Gideon was arrested in Florida and charged with breaking and entering a poolroom with intent to commit petty larceny. Gideon was an indigent and thus unable to afford counsel. At his trial in a Florida state court, he asked the judge to appoint an attorney to represent him. The judge refused to do so because under Florida law at that time, an indigent accused of a crime was entitled to the assistance of counsel provided by the state only if charged with a capital offense. Under U.S. constitutional law at that time, as enunciated by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1942 in Betts v. Brady, a state was only required to appoint counsel for an indigent accused if the accused was a victim of “special circumstances” such as feeblemindedness, illiteracy, youth, etc. Gideon did not claim to be a victim with “special circumstances.”
Gideon defended himself to the best of his ability, but a six-man jury found him guilty, and he was sentenced to five years in jail. He obtained law books and prepared an appeal to the Florida Supreme Court. After losing there, he prepared a handwritten petition asking the U.S. Supreme Court to consider his appeal. The Supreme Court agreed to do so. Gideon also asked the Court’s permission to proceed in forma pauperis (as a pauper). In such cases, if the Court grants permission, as it did in Gideon’s case, among other things, it appoints counsel to represent the accused before the Court. In Gideon’s case, the Court appointed Abe Fortas, who would join the Supreme Court in 1965, as his attorney.
The Court considered the following question:
Does trying an indigent defendant in a state court for a serious criminal offense without providing him with a lawyer at state expense violate the Sixth Amendment’s right to counsel?
Justice Hugo Black wrote the opinion for a unanimous U.S. Supreme Court. The Court ruled that the Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution requires that in any serious criminal case in a state court, if the defendant cannot afford counsel, the state must provide one. Black explained the reason for this new rule: “Reason and reflection require us to recognize that, in our adversary system of criminal justice, 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.”
Black continued: “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 public’s 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 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. 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.”
FOLLOW-UP: Gideon was retried before the same judge in the same courtroom, but this time he had a court-appointed attorney and was acquitted.
- StreetLaw.org/Landmark Cases of the Supreme Court: Teaching Recommendations, Gideon v. Wainwright (1963)
- NACDL.org: Gideon at 44: Fighting for the Right to Counsel
- American Bar Association: Gideon’s Broken Promise: America’s Continuing Quest for Equal Justice