Gideon v. Wainwright | 1963
Yale University Law Professor & Constitutional Law Scholar
Former Solicitor General
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Subject: Right to Legal Counsel
Case Decided:
March 18, 1963

Gideon v. Wainwright is responsible for changing the criminal justice system by granting criminal defendants the right to an attorney, even if they can't afford one on their own. The Court ruled that under the Sixth Amendment, state and federal courts were to respect the rights of the accused and allow them the opportunity to defend themselves.

Clarence E. Gideon was a poor career criminal and unlikely judicial hero who helped shape the criminal justice system. In 1961, Gideon was accused of breaking into a Panama City, Florida pool hall and stealing beer, wine, and money. In trial court, Gideon requested counsel but a state judge reminded him that under Florida law, the state only provided a lawyer when the defendant faced the death penalty.

Gideon had no choice but to represent himself and was sentenced to prison. Taking matters further into his hands, Gideon petitioned the Florida Supreme Court claiming his imprisonment was a violation of his right to counsel and challenging the lower court's ruling as unlawful because the state did not provide him with a lawyer. After the Florida Supreme Court dismissed his petition, Gideon submitted it to the Supreme Court. In a unanimous ruling, the Court decided in favor of Gideon, and it has since become one of the most important criminal law decisions in U.S. history.

Key Players
Clarence Earl Gideon
Earl Gideon (August 30, 1910 – January 18, 1972) was a career criminal whose petty crimes changed the American legal system. After penciling a petition to the U.S. Supreme Court about his right to legal representation, Gideon's case determined that a criminal defendant who cannot afford to pay for counsel must be provided with a lawyer at no cost.
Louie Wainwright
Louie Wainwright (September 11, 1923) was the Florida Department of Corrections Secretary. Wainwright was the respondent in Gideon v. Wainwright in which the Court held that criminal defendants are to be provided legal representation if they cannot afford a lawyer.
Image courtesy of State Archives of Florida/Dughi
Justice Hugo Black
Hugo Black (February 27, 1886 – September 25, 1971) was an activist who was a Supreme Court justice (1937 – 1971). Black wrote the majority opinion in Gideon v. Wainwright. He was an advocate for Fourteenth Amendment rights and was President Franklin Roosevelt’s first appointment to the Court.
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