The Supreme Court’s ‘Gideon’ Ruling at 60 and the Right to Legal Counsel: In Their Own Words

Saturday marks the 60th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s landmark ruling Gideon v. wainwright, in which the judges unanimously affirmed a constitutional right to an attorney for criminal suspects who could not afford one.

Much has been written about the case, which overturned an earlier decision forcing states to set up taxpayer-funded public defense bureaus. Movies and documentaries have also been made.

Clarence Gideon was accused of breaking into a pool hall in Panama City, Florida on June 3, 1961.

The place was vandalized and money was stolen from a cash register. A witness later claimed he saw Gideon exit the store at 5:30 a.m. with a bottle of wine and money in his pocket.


Gideon v. Wainwright Clarence Gideon was charged with breaking into a billiards hall in Panama City, Florida on June 3, 1961, citing criminal defendants who could not afford one.”/>

In Gideon vs. WainwrightClarence Gideon was charged with breaking into a pool hall in Panama City, Florida on June 3, 1961. This case led the US Supreme Court to uphold a constitutional right to an attorney for criminal suspects who could not afford their own. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky, file.)

Based on this portrayal, he was charged with petty theft and burglary and burglary. He was denied court-appointed counsel in state court, represented himself, and was convicted.

Here are some of the key moments of the case, in the words of those involved:

“Mr. Gideon, I’m sorry, but I can’t appoint counsel to represent you in this felony case. I am sorry but I must deny your request to appoint an attorney to represent you in this case.”

— trial judge

“The United States Supreme Court says I have the right to have an attorney represent me.”

– Gideon to the trial judge, Bay County, Florida courtroom, August 4, 1961.

“Gideon appeared to be a man whose own private hopes and fears had long since been numbed by adversity – a weary man who looked (15) years older than he actually was (52). He looked gaunt, 6 feet, 140 pounds.”

— Anthony Lewis, author of “Gideon’s Trumpet,” a 1964 book on the case.

An appeal to the Florida Supreme Court was denied, so he filed a new one.


Clarence Earl Gideon's petition to the United States Chief Justice against a sentence imposed by a Florida court for lack of legal representation, leading to the Fifth Amendment, guaranteeing

Clarence Earl Gideon’s petition to the United States Chief Justice against a sentence imposed by a Florida court for lack of legal representation, leading to the Fifth Amendment, guaranteeing “due process”. (MPI/Getty Images)

“I, Clarence Earl Gideon, claim that I have been denied the rights of the 4th, 5th and 14th Amendments to the Bill of Rights… It doesn’t matter how old I am, or the color of my skin, or what church I belong to [sic] if any. The question is, I didn’t get a fair trial. The question is very simple.”

– Gideon’s 1962 handwritten petition to the Supreme Court

“I think Betts vs Brady [the 1942 precedent] was wrong when it was decided. I think time has made that clear. And I think the time has come that the right rule, the civilized rule, the rule of individualism, the rule of due process must be established by this court.”

– Abe Fortas, the court-appointed private attorney and future Supreme Court Justice who represented Gideon’s appeal to the High Court on January 15, 1963

“I believe this case dramatically illustrates the point that you cannot have a fair trial without legal counsel. In fact, I believe that… a criminal court… is not properly constituted under our adversarial legal system unless there is a judge and unless there is counsel for the prosecution and unless there is counsel for the defense . Without that, how can a civilized nation pretend to have a fair trial?”

— Fortas at his hearing


Generalstaatsanwalt Merrick Garland hielt am 16. März 2023 im National Press Club in Washington, DC, eine Rede zum Gedenken an den 60. Jahrestag von <i><noscript><img decoding=

Attorney General Merrick Garland delivered a speech commemorating the 60th Gideon vs. Wainwrightruled in 1963 by the US Supreme Court at the National Press Club on March 16, 2023 in Washington, DC (Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images)

“In our hostile criminal justice system, anyone brought to trial who is too poor to hire an attorney cannot be guaranteed a fair trial unless an attorney is provided. This seems to us an obvious truth. . . . A defendant’s right to legal counsel may not be considered fundamental and essential to fair trial in some countries, but in our country it is. From the very beginning, our state and national constitutions and laws have placed great emphasis on procedural and material guarantees aims to ensure fair trials in impartial courts where every accused is equal before the law. This noble ideal cannot be realized when the poor man accused of a crime must face his accusers without a lawyer to assist him.”

– Judge Hugo Black, who wrote the Supreme Court Opinion of March 18, 1963

“If an obscure Florida convict named Clarence Earl Gideon hadn’t gone to jail with a pencil and paper to write a letter to the Supreme Court, and if the Supreme Court hadn’t bothered to follow through on this one crude petition For all the bundles of mail it has to receive every day, the mighty machinery of American law would have continued to work undisturbed. But Gideon wrote that letter. The court reviewed his case, and he was tried again with the help of a competent defense attorney, found not guilty, and released from prison after serving two years’ punishment for a crime he did not commit, and the entire course of American legal history has been changed.

– Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, November 1, 1963

“At every stage of my career – as a criminal defense attorney, prosecutor, judge and now ours [nation’s] Chief Law Enforcement Officer – I have seen the truth of what Justice Black wrote in Gideon: “Criminal court attorneys are necessities, not luxuries.” . . As a community of law, we must recognize and affirm the necessity and nobility of the public defense profession.”

– Attorney General Merrick Garland at the National Legal Aid & Defender Association Thursday


In the decades since that remarkable case — and Gideon’s retrial in which he was found not guilty — state public defense systems have been established and strengthened over the decades. Additional court cases have expanded the right to counsel in juvenile justice cases and certain misdemeanors.

“I will not be proud of this biography. There will be no reason to be proud, nor will it be the absolute truth. I don’t remember it well or want to remember it. Being only human, I will try , although I will know that I cannot justify myself by this outline.”

– Clarence Gideon

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