Featured Document: A Right to a Fair Trial

Gideon v. Wainwright (1963), is the landmark the Supreme Court decision that requires states to provide defense attorneys for criminal defendants who can’t afford them.

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Petition for a writ of certiorari from Clarence Gideon to the Supreme Court of the United States, 1/5/1962. (National Archives Identifier 597554)

The case centers on Clarence Earl Gideon, a poor drifter with an eighth-grade education.

Gideon was arrested in 1961 for allegedly breaking into pool hall and stealing money and alcohol. He was charged with a noncapital felony.

Gideon could not afford a lawyer and asked the judge for an attorney to represent him. The judge said that Florida law only allowed the courts to provide attorneys to indigent defendants charged with capital crimes and denied Gideon’s request.

Gideon was left to represent himself.

Not surprisingly, Gideon was found guilty and sentenced to five years in prison. While in jail, he filed a writ of habeas corpus (petition for release from unjust imprisonment) with the Florida Supreme Court. He claimed his conviction was unconstitutional because he had lacked a defense attorney at the trial.

After the Florida Supreme Court denied his request, Gideon submitted a writ of certiorari (a petition asking to review the lower court’s decision) to the United States Supreme Court.

In his petition—in pencil, on lined prison paper—Gideon claimed he was a “pauper” who had been unconstitutionally denied the right to a lawyer and therefore did not have a fair trial.

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Abe Fortas, June 9, 1968. (LBJ Library, photo by Frank Wolfe)

The Supreme Court agreed to hear his case and assigned Gideon a prominent Washington, DC, lawyer and future Supreme Court justice: Abe Fortas.

After hearing arguments from both sides, the justices agreed with Gideon—that the Constitution required the court to provide counsel for defendants in all serious criminal cases who were too poor to hire one.

The court’s opinion stated, “lawyers in criminal courts are necessities, not luxuries,” and ruled that, just like the federal government, states too are bound by the Sixth Amendment. This is because the 14th Amendment’s Due Process Clause mandates that states abide by the Bill of Rights.

In the second trial, Gideon was found not guilty.

The consequences were far-reaching. Not only were defendants now guaranteed their constitutional rights to counsel, the case had a profound impact on the courts. Following the case, many states and counties needed to establish a system of public defenders. The case is considered one of the most significant Supreme Court decisions in American history.

Gideon’s petition to the Supreme Court for a writ of certiorari is currently on display in the Rubenstein Gallery at the National Archives in Washington, DC.

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