Constitution Daily

Smart conversation from the National Constitution Center

The Tower of Law, Stephen Colbert and the Sixth Amendment

March 18, 2011 by Jenna Winterle Kehres


If you asked Center staff about the most popular exhibit at the National Constitution Center, the Tower of Law would definitely make the short list. These tall, spiraling stacks of law books catch everyone’s eyes, even the most mischievous of visitors. Check out what happened when Stephen Colbert came to the Center in 2008 above at the 4:30 mark.

While the sculpture is certainly a striking piece of art, a closer look reveals the true, and much more powerful, message behind the Tower. The exhibit’s reading rail tells the story of Clarence Gideon, a man convicted of breaking and entering, who used prison stationery to petition the Supreme Court from his jail cell. Gideon asked for a new trial, claiming that he had been denied his Sixth Amendment right to an attorney.

In a world where the news is filled with stories about racial profiling and DNA exonerations, we realize the tremendous importance of our Sixth Amendment right to an attorney. The Tower of Law Exhibit, along with Clarence Gideon’s story, is a great illustration of this right. Viewing the piles of legal volumes provides a


Listen to Anthony Lewis, who covered the trial for The New York Times, discuss this landmark decision.

sense of the vast amounts of knowledge and expertise which attorneys possess—knowledge gained only after years of intense study and training.

It’s hard to imagine that a citizen without this training, like Clarence Gideon, could walk into a courtroom and defend himself properly. The Gideon v. Wainwright decision determined that the right of to an attorney is essential to maintaining a fair and impartial court system and ensuring that we fulfill one of the goals laid out in our Constitution’s Preamble: to Establish Justice.


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