March 18, 1963 – The U.S. Supreme Court Decided Gideon v. Wainwright

Clarence Earl Gideon was an indigent defendant charged with a noncapital felony in Panama City, Florida. He asked the court to appoint and pay for counsel, but was denied on the ground that the state law authorized appointment of counsel for indigent defendants in capital cases only. He then conducted his own defense, was convicted, and sentenced to imprisonment. He applied to the Florida State Supreme Court for a writ of habeas corpus on the ground that without the benefit of counsel, his trial in state court did not meet the standards of due process guaranteed him under the Fourteenth Amendment of the Federal Constitution. (A writ of habeas corpus challenges the legality of imprisonment.) The State Supreme Court denied all relief, and his appeal eventually reached the U.S. Supreme Court.

Justice Hugo Black

Justice Hugo Black

The Sixth Amendment, which guarantees “In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to…have the assistance of counsel for his defense,” applies only to the Federal government, not to the states. Moreover, it does not say who is to pay for such counsel. Gideon argued (as had the defendant in Betts before him) that the Fourteenth Amendment incorporated the rights enumerated in the first eight amendments, and applied them to the states.

The facts in the Betts case (Betts v. Brady, 316 U.S. 455, 1942) were substantially the same as those in Gideon. But in Betts, the Court reasoned:

The Sixth Amendment of the national Constitution applies only to trials in federal courts. The due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment does not incorporate, as such, the specific guarantees found in the Sixth Amendment, although a denial by a State of rights or privileges specifically embodied in that and others of the first eight amendments may, in certain circumstances, or in connection with other elements, operate, in a given case, to deprive a litigant of due process of law in violation of the Fourteenth. Due process of law is secured against invasion by the federal Government by the Fifth Amendment, and is safeguarded against state action in identical words by the Fourteenth. The phrase formulates a concept less rigid and more fluid than those envisaged in other specific and particular provisions of the Bill of Rights. Its application is less a matter of rule. Asserted denial is to be tested by an appraisal of the totality of facts in a given case. …”

The Betts Court traced the history of the right to counsel under common law. It showed that before the 18th century, defendants in cases of treason and some other felonies had no right to consult with counsel, whether they could afford one or not. The Court observed:

In the light of this common law practice, it is evident that the constitutional provisions to the effect that a defendant should be ‘allowed’ counsel or should have a right ‘to be heard by himself and his counsel,’ or that he might be heard by ‘either or both,’ at his election, were intended to do away with the rules which denied representation, in whole or in part, by counsel in criminal prosecutions, but were not aimed to compel the State to provide counsel for a defendant. At the least, such a construction by State courts and legislators cannot be said to lack reasonable basis….[W]e cannot say that the [Fourteenth] Amendment embodies an inexorable command that no trial for any offense, or in any court, can be fairly conducted and justice accorded a defendant who is not represented by counsel.”

By the time the Gideon case reached the Court, a sea change in the perception of what constitutes fairness had occurred. Twenty-two states filed briefs supporting the overruling of Betts. The Court agreed.

The Supreme Court opinion, Gideon v. Wainwright (372 U.S. 335), written by Justice Hugo Black, held that “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.” The Court’s earlier precedent of Betts v. Brady was overruled.

Justice Black, writing for a unanimous Court, reasoned that “the Court in Betts had ample precedent for acknowledging that those guarantees of the Bill of Rights which are fundamental safeguards of liberty immune from federal abridgment are equally protected against state invasion by the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.” As in Betts, the Court refrained from explicitly incorporating in the Fourteenth Amendment all the rights enumerated in the Bill of Rights—it limited incorporation to those “which are fundamental safeguards of liberty.” But it clearly found that counsel appointed and paid for by the court was one of those fundamental safeguards. Justice Black wrote: “reason and reflection require us to recognize that, in our adversary system of criminal justice, any person haled [sic] 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.” What had become obvious in 1963 had not been so obvious in 1942.


A 1964 book, Gideon’s Trumpet, by Anthony Lewis, told the story of the case, and a made-for-TV movie based on the book was released in 1980, starring Henry Fonda as Clarence Earl Gideon and José Ferrer as Abe Fortas, who represented Clarence Earl Gideon’s appeal before the Supreme Court.

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