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Gideon v. Wainwright 
1963 - 2013

What is Gideon?

Gideon v. Wainwright, 372 U.S. 335 (1963), is a landmark case in the United States Supreme Court in which the Court unanimously ruled that states are required under the Fourteenth Amendment to provide counsel in criminal cases for defendants who are unable to afford to pay their own attorneys. From his prison cell at Florida State Prison, making use of the prison library and writing in pencil on prison stationery, Gideon appealed to the United States Supreme Court arguing that he had been denied counsel and his rights violated. The United States Supreme Court, in its decision stated: “[R]eason and reflection, require us to recognize that, in our adversary system of criminal justice, any person haled into court, who is too poor to hire a lawyer, cannot be assured a fair trial unless counsel is provided for him. This seems to us to be an obvious truth. Governments, both state and federal, quite properly spend vast sums of money to establish machinery to try defendants accused of crime. Lawyers to prosecute are everywhere deemed essential to protect the public's interest in an orderly society. Similarly, there are few defendants charged with crime, few indeed, who fail to hire the best lawyers they can get to prepare and present their defenses. That government hires lawyers to prosecute and defendants who have the money hire lawyers to defend are the strongest indications of the widespread belief that lawyers in criminal courts are necessities, not luxuries. The right of one charged with crime to counsel may not be deemed fundamental and essential to fair trials in some countries, but it is in ours.” When retried with a lawyer, Gideon was found not guilty.

Tracing the Legal History of Gideon


Don't Talk to the Police


"Gideon's Army": Young Public Defenders Brave Staggering Caseloads, Low Pay to Represent the Poor

Panel of Ohio Legal Professionals discussed how a jailhouse lawyer changed history 50 years ago.

News Articles

Right to attorney is muddled after 50 years

( © 5/25/2013)

Ohioans spent nearly $53.5 million last year on attorneys appointed to defend criminal defendants too poor to pay because of a half-century old U.S. Supreme Court decision that experts say doesn’t guarantee individuals a quality lawyer — or even a sober, awake one.

Why You're in Deep Trouble If You Can't Afford a Lawyer

( © 5/6/2013)

In January 1962, a man sitting in a Florida prison cell scrawled a note to the United States Supreme Court. He'd been charged with breaking into a pool hall, stealing some Cokes, beer, and change, and was handed a five-year sentence after he represented himself because he couldn't pay for a lawyer.

Editorial: Public defender system needs an overhaul

(The Herald Bulletin © 3/26/2013)

In order for justice to work, everyone has to have equal access to the laws and justice system. This is no problem for people who can afford attorneys. For those who can’t, however, justice often takes a backseat.

The Sixth Amendment’s promise of a fair trial fades

( © 3/27/2013)

The United States reached a mile mark 50 years ago when the Supreme Court of the United States responded to a handwritten petition on five pages on prison-issued stationery filed by a petty thief in Florida who wouldn’t take “no” for an answer.

Gideon’s Muted Trumpet

(The New York Times © 3/17/2013)

FIFTY years after the Supreme Court, in Gideon v. Wainwright, guaranteed legal representation to poor people charged with serious crimes, low-income criminal defendants, particularly black ones, are significantly worse off.

Serious problems persist in indigent legal defense

(Associated Press © 3/17/2013)

It is not the happiest of birthdays for the landmark Supreme Court decision that, a half-century ago, guaranteed a lawyer for criminal defendants who are too poor to afford one.

Fifty years after Gideon, lawyers still struggle to provide counsel to the indigent

(ABA Journal © 3/1/2013)

In June 1962, when the U.S. Supreme Court granted review of the handwritten pauper’s appeal from a Florida inmate named Clarence Earl Gideon, the court correspondent of the New York Times immediately knew he had a good news story on his hands.

The Right to Counsel: Badly Battered at 50

(The New York Times © 3/9/2013)

A half-century ago, the Supreme Court ruled that anyone too poor to hire a lawyer must be provided one free in any criminal case involving a felony charge

Key ruling 50 years later

( © 1/9/2013)

This month marks the 50th Anniversary of the argument of Gideon v. Wainwright before the U.S. Supreme Court. In Gideon, a landmark decision, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously ruled that state courts are required to provide legal counsel for those defendants accused of a crime who cannot afford a lawyer.

Photograph of Gideon

Photograph of Clarence Earl Gideon

"If an obscure Florida convict named Clarence Earl Gideon had not sat down in prison with a pencil and paper to write a letter to the Supreme Court, and if the Supreme Court had not taken the trouble to look for merit in that one crude petition among all the bundles of mail it must receive every day, the vast machinery of American law would have gone on functioning undisturbed.

But Gideon did write that letter. The Court did look into his case and he was retried with the help of a competent defense counsel, found not guilty, and released from prison after two years of punishment for a crime he did not commit, and the whole course of American legal history has been changed."

Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy
November 11, 1963

Gideon Petition

U.S. Supreme Court Petition

Click here for larger image


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