Gideon v. Wainwright

The authors of the Bill of Rights were very concerned about the rights of the accused, and there are many safeguards in the first ten amendments that guarantee a fair trial. The 6th Amendment guarantees the right to an attorney, but many cannot afford to hire one. Gideon v. Wainwright is a landmark Supreme Court case that changed the legal landscape in the United States forever by changing the conversation about just exactly what it means to have the constitutional guarantee of assistance of counsel. 

Gideon v. Wainwright Gideon v. Wainwright

Create learning materials about Gideon v. Wainwright with our free learning app!

  • Instand access to millions of learning materials
  • Flashcards, notes, mock-exams and more
  • Everything you need to ace your exams
Create a free account
Table of contents

    Gideon v. Wainwright Summary

    Clarence Earl Gideon was an indigent drifter who was accused of stealing from the Bay Harbor Pool Hall in Panama City, Florida in 1961. He was found with change in his pockets near the pool hall and was arrested. He could not afford a lawyer, so he requested that the state of Florida provide him with one, arguing that the 6th Amendment guarantees citizens the right to counsel. Florida declined to provide a lawyer to Gideon because the law stated that states only had to provide lawyers to indigent defendants in death-penalty cases.

    Indigent: a person suffering from poverty

    Gideon v. Wainright, Gideon's Supreme Court petition, StudySmarterFig. 1 - Clarence Earl Gideon's handwritten petition to the Supreme Court - Wikimedia Commons

    Gideon had no choice but to defend himself at trial, and things didn't go well for him. He lost and was sentenced to 5 years in prison. While in prison, Gideon researched and studied law. His time spent reading law books convinced him that his rights had been violated by the state of Florida when he was denied an attorney. He filed a habeas corpus petition claiming that he had been unfairly imprisoned by the state of Florida because his constitutional rights had been violated. The Florida Supreme Court ruled against Gideon, so he petitioned the Supreme Court in an In forma pauperis brief, which means “in the form of a pauper” The Supreme Court agreed to hear the case.

    Habeas corpus: Translates to “show me the body"; it is the fundamental constitutional right to appear before a judge when a defendant feels they have been improperly imprisoned.

    Gideon v. Wainwright Constitutional Issue

    There are two constitutional issues in Gideon V. Wainwright. One is the 6th Amendment and the protections it provides for those accused of crimes.

    In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right….to have the assistance of counsel for his defense.”

    A provision of the 6th Amendment is the right to counsel. The right to counsel guarantees citizens the right to a lawyer to defend themselves in a court of law. The 6th Amendment says that the government cannot deny someone the right to confer with a lawyer or have a lawyer present in the courtroom. In America, not everyone can afford to hire an attorney, and before Gideon v. Wainwright, the Supreme Court had ruled that only in federal cases would the government provide an attorney to those who could not afford one. In state and local court, defendants were not entitled to have an attorney provided to them.

    The other constitutional issue is the 14th Amendment’s due process clause.

    “No state shall……deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.”

    After the passage of the 14th Amendment in 1866 after the Civil War, the Supreme Court began to rule, on a case by case basis, that portions of the Bill of Rights apply to the states. Before the 14th Amendment, the Bill of Rights only protected people’s individual liberties from the federal government.

    Gideon v. Wainwright Arguments

    The question presented before the Court was: Does a state’s conviction of a defendant without counsel, even in cases in which the death penalty is not an issue, violate the 6th Amendment’s right to counsel in criminal cases?

    Arguments for Gideon:

    • There is no such thing as a fair trial if a defendant doesn’t have counsel. The average person cannot defend themselves adequately.

    • The Court rules that defendants on trial in death penalty cases have the right to a lawyer, but the Court ruled in Betts v. Brady, that defendants in non death penalty cases do not. This doesn’t make sense, is bad precedent, and should be overturned. The 6th Amendment doesn’t differentiate in the types of cases, and neither should the Court.

    • There is broad support in the country for overturning Betts v. Brady. Twenty-two states filed amicus curiae briefs in support of applying the 6th Amendment right to counsel to the states.

    Amicus curiae: A “friend of the court” brief. An amicus curiae brief is written by a non-litigant who has an interest in the case.

    Brief: a written statement by a lawyer that summarizes the case

    Arguments for Wainwright:

    • Betts v. Brady established that defendants who could demonstrate special circumstances could receive a lawyer in any criminal case. Clarence Earl Gideon did not demonstrate special circumstances.

    • The U.S. has a federal system of government. The federal government mandating a rule to the states stating that they must provide defendants a lawyer is overreach.

    • Defendants can have a fair trial without an attorney. Judges are present and know the law. That is sufficient. Lawyers don’t guarantee fair trials.

    • Betts v. Brady has established precedent. The ruling should remain. If it is overturned, the cost would be a burden on the taxpayer. Providing an attorney to every defendant would be too expensive.

    Gideon v. Wainwright Ruling

    The Supreme Court ruled unanimously in favor of Gideon, overruling Betts v. Brady. Justice Hugo Black authored the opinion on behalf of the Court. Chief Justice Earl Warren presided. The Court held that the right to counsel is a fundamental right, and that denying a defendant counsel in state courts is a violation of the 6th Amendment’s right to counsel and the 14th Amendment’s due process clause.

    The Court ruled that without counsel, defendants could not receive a fair trial. The Constitution has many provisions in place that safeguard the right to a fair trial, therefore, the right to an attorney is necessary. State courts must provide counsel to defendants who cannot afford it themselves.

    Gideon v. Wainwright Importance

    Gideon v. Wainwright, Clarence Earl Gideon, StudySmarterFig. 2 - Clarence Earl Gideon - Wikimedia Commons

    Gideon v. Wainwright has tremendous importance in the field of indigent rights. Because of Gideon, indigent defendants must have a lawyer provided to them if they cannot afford it in any criminal case. Gideon also has significant importance as a selective incorporation case, incorporating the 6th Amendment’s right to counsel to the states. After the Supreme Court’s ruling, Clarence Gideon received a new trial and was acquitted. A movie titled “Gideon’s Trumpet” memorialized the case.

    Gideon and his lawyer, Abe Fortas, fought for all people to have the right to a lawyer, even if they cannot afford one; as a result, the legal system became more fair for some of America’s most vulnerable citizens.

    Gideon v. Wainwright - Key takeaways

    • The Supreme Court ruled unanimously in favor of Gideon, overruling Betts v. Brady.
    • The Court held that the right to counsel is a fundamental right, and that denying a defendant's counsel in state courts is a violation of the 6th Amendment’s right to counsel and the 14th Amendment’s due process clause.
    • The two constitutional issues in Gideon V. Wainwright are the 6th Amendment’s right to counsel and the 14th Amendment’s due process clause.
    • Gideon V. Wainwright incorporated the 6th Amendment’s right to counsel to the states through the 14th Amendment’s due process clause.
    • Gideon v. Wainwright has tremendous importance in the field of indigent rights. Because of Gideon, indigent defendants must have a lawyer provided to them if they cannot afford it in any criminal case.

    References

    1. "Gideon v. Wainwright." Oyez, www.oyez.org/cases/1962/155. Accessed 29 Aug. 2022.
    2. https://www.uscourts.gov/educational-resources/educational-activities/facts-and-case-summary-gideon-v-wainwright
    3. Fig. 1, Gideon's petition to Supreme Court (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gideon_v._Wainwright) by U.S. National Archives via Flickr(https://www.flickr.com/photos/usnationalarchives/4127740637/in/photostream/) In Public Domain
    4. Fig. 2, Clarence Earl Gideon (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Clarence_Earl_Gideon) by Unknown Author (ttp://www.floridamemory.com/items/show/35169) In Public Domain
    Frequently Asked Questions about Gideon v. Wainwright

    What did Wainwright argue in Gideon v. Wainwright?

    Wainwright argued that Betts v. Brady was established precedent. The ruling should remain. If it is overturned, the cost would be a burden on the taxpayer. Providing an attorney to every defendant would be too expensive.

     

    What were the facts and ruling in Gideon v. Wainwright?

    The Supreme Court ruled unanimously in favor of Gideon, overruling Betts v. Brady. The Court ruled that Clarence Earl Gideon, an indigent defendant who was denied counsel because he couldn't afford it, was unlawfully convicted because his constitutional rights were violated. 

    What amendment did Gideon v. Wainwright violate?

    The Court held that the right to counsel is a fundamental right, and that denying a defendant's counsel in state courts is a violation of the 6th Amendment’s right to counsel and the 14th Amendment’s due process clause. 

    What is the significance of Gideon v. Wainwright?

    Gideon v. Wainwright has tremendous importance in the field of indigent rights. Because of Gideon, indigent defendants must have a lawyer provided to them if they cannot afford it in any criminal case.

    What was the main impact of Gideon v. Wainwright on US society?

    Because of Clarence Gideon and his fight for people to have the right to a lawyer, even if they cannot afford one, the legal system became more fair for some of America’s most vulnerable citizens. 

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    What are the two constitutional provisions in Gideon v. Wainwright?

    What part of the 6th Amendment did Gideon v. Wainwright focus on?

    What part of the 14th Amendment did Gideon v. Wainwright involve?

    Next

    Discover learning materials with the free StudySmarter app

    Sign up for free
    1
    About StudySmarter

    StudySmarter is a globally recognized educational technology company, offering a holistic learning platform designed for students of all ages and educational levels. Our platform provides learning support for a wide range of subjects, including STEM, Social Sciences, and Languages and also helps students to successfully master various tests and exams worldwide, such as GCSE, A Level, SAT, ACT, Abitur, and more. We offer an extensive library of learning materials, including interactive flashcards, comprehensive textbook solutions, and detailed explanations. The cutting-edge technology and tools we provide help students create their own learning materials. StudySmarter’s content is not only expert-verified but also regularly updated to ensure accuracy and relevance.

    Learn more
    StudySmarter Editorial Team

    Team Gideon v. Wainwright Teachers

    • 8 minutes reading time
    • Checked by StudySmarter Editorial Team
    Save Explanation

    Study anywhere. Anytime.Across all devices.

    Sign-up for free

    Sign up to highlight and take notes. It’s 100% free.

    Join over 22 million students in learning with our StudySmarter App

    The first learning app that truly has everything you need to ace your exams in one place

    • Flashcards & Quizzes
    • AI Study Assistant
    • Study Planner
    • Mock-Exams
    • Smart Note-Taking
    Join over 22 million students in learning with our StudySmarter App