Gideon v Wainwright (1963) was a landmark case, in which the Supreme Court unanimously ruled that states must provide legal counsel in criminal cases in which the defendants cannot afford to hire counsel for themselves. It was maintained that the Fourteenth Amendment guarantees that the right to counsel must be guaranteed to all defendants, irrespective of their financial situations. This paper will provide an overview of the main elements of the case, beginning with Gideon’s original crime, and ending with the impact that the ruling has had on subsequent legal practice and law.
Clarence Gideon was a nonviolent career criminal, who was eventually “charged with breaking and entering with the intent to commit a misdemeanor, which is a felony under Florida law” (USC 2016). Gideon did not appear in court with an attorney, because he could not afford one. Gideon asked the judge to appoint an attorney for him, a request that the judge refused on the grounds that in Florida the law allows for such appointments of a lawyer only in very specific cases—cases in which poor defendants who are alleged to have committed capital offenses request that they be appointed counsel. Since Gideon’s charge was not a capital offense, he was held not to be eligible for appointed counsel.
When the case went to trial, Gideon was forced to act as his own counsel. He apparently did a credible job as his own attorney, carrying out many of the functions that appointed counsel would have carried out. Nevertheless he was found guilty by the jury, and sentenced to five years. Gideon filed a petition for ‘writ of habeas corpus’. ‘Habeas corpus’ is Latin that literally translates as ‘that you have the body’. Such a writ is essentially a plea, made by or on behalf of, a convicted criminal, to have his or her imprisonment examined for its legality. The grounds that Gideon cited was his trial judge’s refusal to appoint him an attorney, thereby violating his constitutional rights. The Supreme Court of Florida rejected Gideon’s petition.
But Gideon did not give up. He “filed a handwritten petition in the Supreme Court of the United States. The Court agreed to hear the case to resolve the question of whether the right to counsel guaranteed under the Sixth Amendment of the Constitution applies to defendants in state court” (USC 1016).
In the background of Gideon v Wainwright was a prior ruling of the Supreme Court, Betts v Brady (1942). This decision held that denying appointed counsel for a defendant unable to hire an attorney did not violate the relevant portion of the Fourteenth Amendment—which is the so-called ‘due process clause’. This clause effectively serves to guarantee rights to life, liberty and property by the Government. The Supreme Court had interpreted the clause as providing certain specific protections, including procedural due process (which is the protection at issue in the two cases that have been mentioned). The Court agreed to hear Gideon’s petition for a ‘writ of certiorari’. This is Latin for ‘to be informed of, or to be made certain in regard to’. Basically the Court agreed to review Gideon’s case, including the writ that the Florida Supreme Court had rejected.
The case was argued on January 15, 1963, and decided on March 18 of that year. The decision was unanimous, with Justice Black—who had written a dissenting opinion in Betts v Brady—writing the opinion of the Court. The other justices, Douglas, Harlan and Clark each wrote opinions that concurred with Black’s (USC 2016). It is a striking fact that the Court’s ruling was unanimous, as well as that it overturned the earlier ruling in the other direction.
Here is a description of the Court’s reasoning in Gideon v Wainwright: It held that the guarantee of counsel made in the Sixth Amendment of the Constitution is a fundamental right, being essential to receiving a fair trial. Therefore the guarantee “applies to the states through the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment” (USC 2016). Justice Black held that both ‘reason and reflection’ require that in our criminal justice system, with its adversarial nature, any person who cannot afford an attorney cannot be assured to have a fair trial unless an attorney is appointed for him or her. Black “further wrote that the ‘noble ideal’ of ‘fair trials before impartial tribunals in which every defendant stands equal before the law … cannot be realized if the poor man charged with crime has to face his accusers without a lawyer to assist him” (USC 2016).
What impact has this decision had on our criminal justice system? Thanks to the ruling even indigent defendants are provided with legal counsel. This is certainly an improvement. Yet it can be questioned whether, given the state of various ‘legal aid’ programs, the decision has truly corrected the problem from which Gideon and countless others have suffered from. Even the way that such programs are often described hints at the core problem here. Legal aid is often called a ‘welfare provision’ provided by the state. And like other welfare programs, legal aid departments tend to be drastically underfunded. Furthermore, the various states receive differing levels of legal aid funding, which indicates that happening to find oneself in a certain state, rather than another, will mean that one receives, on average, better legal representation. Part of the problem, of course, is that legal aid attorneys are not the highest paid lawyers in the world. Since better lawyers can command higher salaries than lesser lawyers, this means that there is an inevitable move away from legal aid for most attorneys; which in turn means that, even apart from being underfunded, legal aid attorneys typically provide counsel to their clients that is inferior to that provided by non-legal-aid attorneys.
Therefore, while it cannot be denied that Gideon v Wainwright improved our criminal justice system, there may be room left for further improvements. Future Court rulings may perhaps provide such additional improvements.