Case Study: Gideon v. Wainwright

In Gideon v. Wainwright, 372 U.S. 335 (1963), the U.S. Supreme Court held that criminal defendants in state courts, who could not afford their own legal counsel, had to be provided such counsel free of charge. This rule arose from the Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, and was held to apply to the states through the Fourteenth Amendment. The right to counsel previously existed in various forms for many years in federal court. After Gideon, it was brought to cover all state courts as well.

Case Background

The case began when the Bay Harbor Pool Room in Panama City, FL was burglarized. A witness stated that a man named Clarence Earl Gideon was the perpetrator. Based on this single witness statement alone, Mr. Gideon was arrested and charged with breaking and entering with intent to commit petty larceny.

At trial, Mr. Gideon represented himself and professed his innocence. Nevertheless, the jury found him guilty. He was sentenced to five years in prison.

From Florida State Prison, he filed an appeal seeking vindication of his rights by the Supreme Court. It was at that point that Mr. Gideon caught a lucky break: his assigned counsel on appeal was Abe Fortas of the firm Arnold, Fortas & Porter, who would later become a Supreme Court justice.

The Holding

The right to counsel had been growing in federal case law for some time. In accordance with Powell v. Alabama, 287 U.S. 45 (1932), the right began as a limited protection only afforded to defendants in capital cases—cases in which the defendant was charged with a crime punishable by death. However, in Betts v. Brady, 316 U.S. 455 (1942), the Supreme Court extended Powell to cover certain non-capital cases as well, where a lack of counsel would amount to a denial of due process.

In Gideon, this right was further extended as a fundamental right operative in cases both state and federal where a defendant could not afford to retain counsel. The Court noted that the Constitution itself did not make a distinction between serious and non-serious cases in the Sixth Amendment. Therefore, the Court reasoned, its requirements could not turn on such a distinction. The right to legal representation thus was acknowledged to be a right essential to due process in almost all cases.

After the ruling, Mr. Gideon was awarded a new trial with proper legal representation. After an hour of jury deliberation, he was acquitted.

Gideon turned out not to be the end of this line of case law. Instead, further extensions of the Sixth Amendment right to counsel from Massiah v. United States, 377 U.S. 201 (1964) and Miranda v. Arizona 384 U.S. 436 (1966) confirmed that the right attaches even to police interrogations that take place before trial and before charges are filed. This case law stands to this day and is an integral part of the U.S. criminal justice system.

If you are interested in learning more, the @WashULaw online LL.M. in U.S. Law program can help expand your understanding of U.S. Law with courses such as “Introduction to U.S. Law & Methods: U.S. Legal System.”