Constitution Daily

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On This Day:  You have a right to an attorney

March 18, 2019 by NCC Staff


It was on this day in 1963 that the Supreme Court handed down the Gideon decision, which guaranteed the rights of the accused to have a public defender in court.

In Gideon v. Wainwright, the Court concluded that the Constitution required state-provided legal counsel in criminal cases for defendants who are unable to afford to pay their own attorneys.

The Gideon decision touched on three amendments—the Sixth Amendment, the 14th Amendment and the Fifth Amendment. But the Sixth Amendment was at the decision’s core.

Prior to 1962, indigent Americans were not always guaranteed access to legal counsel despite the Sixth Amendment.  Clarence Earl Gideon, a Florida resident, was charged in Florida state court for breaking and entering into a poolroom with the intent to commit a crime.

Due to his poverty, Gideon asked the Florida court to appoint an attorney for him. The court declined to do this and pointed to state law which said that the only time indigent defendants could be appointed an attorney was when charged with a capital offense.

Left with no other choice, Gideon represented himself in trial and lost. Gideon then studied the law while in prison, and he filed a petition of habeas corpus to the Florida Supreme Court, arguing that he had a constitutional right to be represented with an attorney, but the Florida Supreme Court did not grant him any relief.

Gideon then sent a handwritten five-page petition to the United States Supreme Court asking for his appeal to be accepted. The Court agreed, and future Supreme Court Justice Abe Fortas was assigned to represent Gideon.

A unanimous Supreme Court said that state courts were  required under the 14th Amendment to provide counsel in criminal cases to represent defendants who are unable to afford to pay their own attorneys, guaranteeing the Sixth Amendment’s similar federal guarantees.

“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,” wrote Justice Hugo Black in the unanimous opinion.

The Court also said that the Constitution’s Sixth Amendment gives defendants the right to counsel in criminal trials where the defendant is charged with a serious offense even if they cannot afford one themselves; it stated that “in all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to … have the Assistance of Counsel for his defense.”

“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,” said Black.

Gideon did receive a second trial in Florida, where he was found not guilty with the help of an attorney.

An equally significant book from Anthony Lewis, “Gideon’s Trumpet,” memorialized the case in our culture.


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