GIDEON V. WAINWRIGHT – The Right To Counsel 50 Years Later – Part I

The Right To Counsel – Gideon v. Wainwright – 50 Years Later 

On March 18, 1963, the United States Supreme Court issued its opinion in Gideon v. Wainwright, establishing the right to counsel for those who cannot afford to hire their own.  On March 18, 2013 the United States Supreme Court decision in Gideon v. Wainwright turned 50 years old.  I have been practicing law in Alabama for the past 20 years, and it is hard to believe that just thirty years prior to my taking the oath of an attorney at the Alabama Supreme Court the courts of this country routinely refused to provide indigent defendants counsel to represent them when their freedom was at risk.


Clarence Gideon was 51 when he was arrested in Panama City Florida in 1961. He was charged with burglarizing a local pool hall and stealing wine and money from the vending machine. Before the case came to trial, Gideon asked for the assistance of an attorney. The judge refused to provide Gideon an attorney, explaining that the court would only provide attorneys to those defendants who were facing the death penalty.

The COURT: Mr. Gideon, I am sorry, but I cannot appoint Counsel to represent you in this case. Under the laws of the State of Florida, the only time the Court can appoint Counsel to represent a Defendant is when that person is charged with a capital offense. I am sorry, but I will have to deny your request to appoint Counsel to defend you in this case.

The DEFENDANT: The United States Supreme Court says I am entitled to be represented by Counsel.

Gideon was left to defend himself against the charge. He was convicted and sentenced to a five years. Gideon, an eighth-grade dropout, felt that this was not right, and that he should have been given the assistance of an attorney. Using the only tools at hand, a pencil and the prison stationary, Gideon hand wrote a petition to the United States Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court, looking for a chance to address the issue of indigent defense, took up Gideon’s petition, appointing future Supreme Court Justice Abe Fortas to represent Gideon on the appeal. Ultimately, Gideon’s conviction was reversed, his case sent back for a new trial at which he was now represented by an attorney. After his second jury trial, Gideon was found not guilty.


In the Supreme Court opinion, authored by Alabama’s own Justice Hugo Black, the Court explained why it was so important that a person standing before a court of law on a criminal charge have a lawyer standing beside them, representing them, and ensuring that their rights as guaranteed by the Constitution are protected.

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.  Gideon v. Wainwright, 372 U.S. 335, 344 (1963)

Drawing from an earlier opinion, Alabama v. Powell, Justice Black quoted Justice Southerland:

The right to be heard would be, in many cases, of little avail if it did not comprehend the right to be heard by counsel. Even the intelligent and educated layman has small and sometimes no skill in the science of law. If charged with crime, he is incapable, generally, of determining for himself whether the indictment is good or bad. He is unfamiliar with the rules of evidence. Left without the aid of counsel, he may be put on trial without a proper charge, and convicted upon incompetent evidence, or evidence irrelevant to the issue or otherwise inadmissible. He lacks both the skill and knowledge adequately to prepare his defense, even though he have a perfect one. He requires the guiding hand of counsel at every step in the proceedings against him. Without it, though he be not guilty, he faces the danger of conviction because he does not know how to establish his innocence.  Gideon v. Wainwright, 372 U.S., at 345.


Unfortunately, the state of indigent defense is not in the best of health across America today.  On the anniversary of the Gideon decision numerous legal scholars and commentators have written about the lack of adequate legal representation in America’s criminal courts.  A review of just a few of the articles is telling:


Mark Sherman of the Huffington Post Writes:

A half-century later, there are parts of the country where “it is better to be rich and guilty than poor and innocent,” said Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee and a former prosecutor. Leahy said court-appointed lawyers often are underpaid and can be “inexperienced, inept, uninterested or worse.”  Regardless of guilt or innocence, few of those accused of crimes are rich, while 80 percent say they are too poor to afford a lawyer.

Leonard Pitts, Jr. of the Miami Herald writes:

It turns out there is a gulf between the 1963 promise and the 2013 reality. It turns out one lawyer can be expected to try 400, 500, 600 cases a year. It turns out public defenders are so underfunded and overwhelmed it is not uncommon for a defendant to meet his attorney for the first time in court. It turns out the situation is so dire that in at least one jurisdiction a judge pressed tax attorneys and property lawyers into service in criminal court. It turns out poor people’s justice is to justice as monkey business is to business.  

U. S. Attorney General  Eric Holder speaking at the Justice Department’s 50th Anniv. Celebration of Gideon:

Yet, despite half a century of progress – even today, in 2013, far too many Americans struggle to gain access to the legal assistance they need.  And far too many children and adults routinely enter our juvenile and criminal justice systems with little understanding of the rights to which they’re entitled, the charges against them, or the potential sentences they may face.  In short, America’s indigent defense systems exist in a state of crisis.


Bradford Ladner, LLP. is an Alabama based law firm with offices in Clanton and Mobile, practicing Federal Criminal Defense, Alabama State Criminal Defense, Federal Criminal Appeals, State Criminal and Civil Appeals, Divorce and Child Custody Matters, and Alabama Civil Litigation. We practice in all Alabama Courts Statewide and in Federal Court Nationwide
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