The Right to Counsel

Sixty years ago, on March 18, 1963,  the U.S. Supreme Court decided Gideon v. Wainwright, significantly changing the face of criminal law in the United States.

Charged with breaking and entering into a Florida pool hall, Clarence Earl Gideon could not afford an attorney. After being convicted and sentenced to five years imprisonment, he appealed asserting that his conviction was unconstitutional because the trial court refused to appoint counsel. The Supreme Court’s unanimous decision, written by Justice Hugo Black, found that the Sixth Amendment gives criminal defendants the right to counsel when charged with a serious offense, even if they cannot afford it. Gideon was subsequently retried and acquitted.

In requiring states to provide attorneys to indigent criminal defendants, the Supreme Court effectively created the public defender system that is today accepted as an integral part of the legal community.

Further reading:

For a quick account of the case, including an image of the first page of Gideon’s handwritten cert. petition to the Supreme Court, see the attached excerpt from Professor Michael Roffer’s The Law Book: From Hammurabi to the International Criminal Court, 250 Milestones in the History of Law. K150.R64 2015.

Gideon’s Trumpet (Book) KF228.G53 L49 1964

Gideon’s Trumpet (Movie)

Kyung M. Lee, Reinventing Gideon v. Wainwright: Holistic Defenders, Indigent Defendants, and the Right to Counsel, 31 Am. J. Crim. L. 367 (2004). (Article mentions The Bronx Defenders.)

Bruce R. Jacob, Memories and Reflections about Gideon v. Wainwright, 33 Stetson L. Rev. 181 (2003). (The author is the former Florida Assistant Attorney General who argued the case before the United States Supreme Court.)