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

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GIDEON v. WAINWRIGHT 372 U.S. 335 (1963)

From time to time in constitutional history an obscure individual becomes the symbol of a great movement in legal doctrine. Character and circumstance illuminate a new understanding of the Constitution. So it was in the case of Clarence Earl Gideon.

Gideon was a drifter and petty thief who had served four prison terms when, in 1961, he was charged with breaking and entering the Bay Harbor Poolroom in Panama City, Florida, and stealing a pint of wine and some coins from a cigarette machine. At the age of fifty he had the look of defeat: a gaunt wrinkled face, white hair, a trembling voice. But inside there was still passion—a concern for justice that approached obsession. Through it, in a manner of speaking, Gideon changed the Constitution.

When he went to trial in the Circuit Court of Bay County, Florida, on August 4, 1961, he asked the judge to appoint a lawyer for him because he was too poor to hire one himself. The judge said he was sorry but he could not do that, because the laws of Florida called for appointment of counsel only when a defendant was charged with a capital offense. Gideon said: "The United States Supreme Court says I am entitled to be represented by counsel." When the Florida courts rejected that claim, he went on to the Supreme Court. From prison he submitted a petition, handwritten in pencil, arguing that Florida had ignored a rule laid down by the Supreme Court: "that all citizens tried for a felony crime should have aid of counsel."

Gideon was wrong. The rule applied by the Supreme Court at that time was in fact exactly the opposite. The Constitution, it had held, did not guarantee free counsel to all felony defendants unable to retain their own. That was the outcome—the bitterly debated outcome—of a line of cases on the right to counsel.

The Supreme Court first dealt with the issue in 1932, in the Scottsboro Case, Powell v. Alabama. Due process of law required at least a "hearing," Justice george h. sutherland said, and the presence of counsel was "fundamental" to a meaningful hearing.

But Sutherland said that the Court was not deciding whether poor defendants had a right to free counsel in all circumstances, beyond the aggravated ones of this case: a capital charge, tried in haste and under public pressure.

In johnson v. zerbst (1938) the Court read the Sixth Amendment to require the appointment of counsel for all indigent federal criminal defendants. But in betts v. brady (1942), when considering the right of poor state defendants to free counsel in noncapital cases, the Court came out the other way. Justice owen j. roberts said that "the states should not be straitjacketed" by a uniform constitutional rule. Only when particular circumstances showed that want of counsel denied fundamental fairness, he said, were such convictions invalid.

For twenty years the rule of Betts v. Brady applied. Counsel was said to be required only when a defendant suffered from "special circumstances" of disability: illiteracy, youth, mental illness, the complexity of the charges. But during that period criticism of the case mounted. No one could tell, it was said, when the Constitution required counsel. More and more often, too, the Supreme Court found "special circumstances" to require counsel.

That was the situation when Clarence Earl Gideon's petition reached the Court. The Justices seized on the occasion to think again about the Constitution and the right to counsel. Granting review, the Court ordered counsel to discuss: "Should this Court's holding in Betts v. Brady be reconsidered?" And then it appointed to represent Gideon, who had had no lawyer at his trial, one of the ablest lawyers in Washington, abe fortas—later to sit on the Supreme Court himself.

On March 18, 1963, the Court overruled Betts v. Brady. Justice hugo l. black, who had dissented in Betts, wrote the opinion of the Court: a rare vindication of past dissent. He quoted Justice Sutherland's words on every man's need for the guiding hand of counsel at every step of the proceeding against him. "The right of one charged with crime to counsel may not be deemed fundamental and essential to fair trials in some countries," Justice Black said, "but it is in ours."

The decision in Gideon v. Wainwright was an important victory for one side in a general philosophical debate on the Court about whether constitutional protections should apply with the same vigor to state as to federal action: a victory for Justice Black over Justice Felix Frankfurter's more deferential view of state power. But on this particular issue changing ideas of due process would have led Justice Frankfurter in 1963 to impose a universal rule; retired and ill, he told a friend that he would have voted to overrule Betts. The case thus showed how time may bring a new consensus on the meaning of the Constitution.

And, not least, the Gideon case showed that the courts still respond to individuals in a society where most institutions of government seem remote and unresponsive. The least influential of men, riding a wave of legal history, persuaded the Supreme Court to reexamine a premise of justice. The case in fact represented more than an abstract principle. It was a victory for Clarence Earl Gideon. After the Supreme Court decision he was tried again in Bay County, Florida, this time with a lawyer—and the jury acquitted him. Gideon stayed out of prison until he died, on January 18, 1972.

Anthony Lewis


Lewis, Anthony 1964 Gideon's Trumpet. New York: Random House.