Gideon v. Wainwright (1963)

Landmark unanimous ruling that states are required under the Sixth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution to provide an attorney to defendants in criminal cases who are unable to afford their own.

Citation: 372 U.S. 335
Date decided: Mar 18, 1963
Longer case name: Gideon v. Wainwright
Law type: Criminal
Jurisdiction level:Federal
State of origin: Florida
Topic(s):Right to counsel: Criminal
Lists:Important cases and zGreatest hits (future)
Attorneys:Abe Fortas, by appointment of the Court, 370 U.S. 932 , argued the cause for petitioner. With him on the brief were Abe Krash and Ralph Temple. Abe Fortas was a Washington, D.C. attorney and future Supreme Court justice.
Others involved:J. Lee Rankin, by special leave of Court, argued the cause for the American Civil Liberties Union et al., as amici curiae, urging reversal. With him on the brief were Norman Dorsen, John Dwight Evans, Jr., Melvin L. Wulf, Richard J. Medalie, Howard W. Dixon and Richard Yale Feder. A brief for the state governments of twenty-two States and Commonwealths, as amici curiae, urging reversal, was filed by Edward J. McCormack, Jr., Attorney General of Massachusetts, Walter F. Mondale, Attorney General of Minnesota, Duke W. Dunbar, Attorney General of Colorado, Albert L. Coles, Attorney General of Connecticut, Eugene Cook, Attorney General of Georgia, Shiro Kashiwa, Attorney General of Hawaii, Frank Benson, Attorney General of Idaho, William G. Clark, Attorney General of Illinois, Evan L. Hultman, Attorney General of Iowa, John B. Breckinridge, Attorney General of Kentucky, Frank E. Hancock, Attorney General of Maine, Frank J. Kelley, Attorney General of Michigan, Thomas F. Eagleton, Attorney General of Missouri, Charles E. Springer, Attorney General of Nevada, Mark McElroy, Attorney General of Ohio, Leslie R. Burgum, Attorney General of North Dakota, Robert Y. Thornton, Attorney General of Oregon, J. Joseph Nugent, Attorney General of Rhode Island, A. C. Miller, Attorney General of South Dakota, John J. O’Connell, Attorney General of Washington, C. Donald Robertson, Attorney General of West Virginia, and George N. Hayes, Attorney General of Alaska. Robert Y. Thornton, Attorney General of Oregon, and Harold W. Adams, Assistant Attorney General, filed a separate brief for the State of Oregon, as amicus curiae.
More info: Anthony Lewis, “Gideon’s Trumpet: How One Man, a Poor Prisoner, Took His Case to the Supreme Court – and Changed the Law of the United States” (1964 booke. In 1965, the book won an Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America for Best Fact Crime book. A made-for-TV movie, of the same name, based on the book was released in 1980, starring Henry Fonda as Clarence Earl Gideon, José Ferrer as Abe Fortas and John Houseman as Earl Warren (though Warren’s name was never mentioned in the film; he was billed simply as “The Chief Justice”).

Case Importance

The case extended the right to counsel, which had been found under the Fifth and Sixth Amendments to impose requirements on the federal government, by imposing those requirements upon the states as well. Martin Kelly, “The Right to Counsel in Criminal Cases”, ThoughtCo, 2019: “Significance of Gideon v. Wainwright: Gideon v. Wainwright overruled the previous decision of Betts v. Brady (1942). In this case, Smith Betts, a farm worker in Maryland had asked for counsel to represent him for a robbery case. Just as with Gideon, this right was denied him because the state of Maryland would not provide attorneys except in capital case. [In Betts], [t]he Supreme Court decided by a 6-3 decision that a right to an appointed counsel was not required in all cases in order for an individual to receive a fair trial and due process in state trials. It was basically left up to each state to decide when it would provide public counsel. Justice Hugo Black dissented and wrote the opinion that if you were indigent you had an increased chance of conviction. “In Gideon, the court stated that the right to an attorney was a fundamental right ​for a fair trial. They stated that due to the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, all states would be required to provide counsel in criminal cases. This significant case created the need for additional public defenders. Programs were developed in states around the country to help recruit and train public defenders. Today, the number of cases defended by public defenders is huge. For example, in 2011 in Miami Dade County, the largest of the 20 Florida Circuit Courts, approximately 100,000 cases were assigned to Public Defenders.”

Case Details

(The syllabus is not part of the opinion, but is a summary prepared by the court reporter as a convenience.)

Charged in a Florida State Court with a noncapital felony, petitioner appeared without funds and without counsel and asked the Court to appoint counsel for him; but this was denied on the ground that the state law permitted appointment of counsel for indigent defendants in capital cases only. Petitioner conducted his own defense about as well as could be expected of a layman; but he was convicted and sentenced to imprisonment. Subsequently, he applied to the State Supreme Court for a writ of habeas corpus, on the ground that his conviction violated his rights under the Federal Constitution. The State Supreme Court denied all relief. Held: The right of an indigent defendant in a criminal trial to have the assistance of counsel is a fundamental right essential to a fair trial, and petitioner’s trial and conviction without the assistance of counsel violated the Fourteenth Amendment. Betts v. Brady, 316 U.S. 455 , overruled. Pp. 336-345.

Reversed and cause remanded.

Last modified: 2022-12-27 12:49
Case internal grade: A | Case internal status: OK |
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