Gideon v. Wainright

By:- Saurabh Shrivastava

Name of the caseGideon v. Wainright
Citation372 U.S. 335 (1963)
Date of judgement18th March 1963
PetitionerClarence Earl Gideon
RespondentLouie L. Wainright
Bench/JudgeJustice Hugo Black, Warren, Brennan Stewart, White, Goldberg, Clark, Harlan Douglas
Statues/constitution involvedVI Amendment and XIV amendment of US constitution


It’s a determination of Florida inmate Clarence Gideon, a most unlikely hero, that upheld the Sixth Amendment’s guarantee of the right to counsel for poor criminal defendants. Before Gideon’s infamous letter from his Prison cell, the Supreme Court had narrowly interpreted the scope Sixth Amendment denying the vast majority of poor criminal defendant access to legal aid. Clarence Gideon’s hand-written appeal to the United Nation Supreme Court ignited a fundamental change in the criminal justice system, resulting in the Court declaring the right to counsel a fundamental right for fair trial and providing a lawyer to indigent person and to those who could not afford it.


1963, the year when the United States criminal justice system was revolutionized. The change that occurred led to the creation of the public defender system. The need for more public defenders also led to a need to ensure that they were properly trained in criminal defence in order to allow defendants to receive as fair a trial as possible. The poor defendant or even a person who couldn’t afford a lawyer due to economic condition are provided with a free lawyer to defend their case. It came to the view of the court, that however small a crime is, everyone deserves a fair trial from mighty forces of the state which could not be possible unless he/she has sufficient knowledge of the law and its technical know-how.

Background & Facts of the case

In Panama City, Florida on June 3, 1961, sometime between midnight and 6 am, someone breaks into the bay harbour pool room and stole the money from the cash counter. On interrogation, one witness reported that he had seen a man named Clarence Earl Gideon walking out of the pool room around 5.30 pm with a wine bottle and pocket full of cash. Gideon, a man with an eighth-grade education, had spent most of his life in and out of prisons for a non-violent crime.

This made him an easy target. On the accusation of a witness, Gideon was arrested for stealing money. Afterwards, it turns out that Gideon had no money to hire a lawyer. He asked the Florida circuit court judge to appoint him a lawyer claiming that the sixth amendment of the constitution guarantees everyone a lawyer. The judge of the court refused to provide him lawyer on the pretext that a lawyer is provided to the poor criminal defendant only in capital offences or for offence so serious that death might be the punishment.

(United States Supreme Court in Powell vs Alabama (1932) the court had decided that people accused of a crime be notified and they have right to a lawyer and should be provided if they can’t afford it. In Betts vs Brady (1942), the court held that unless there are special circumstances, the defendant could not be provided with a lawyer by the state.

This denial led Gideon to defend the case himself and as it turned out due to lack of expertise, a jury found him guilty and the judge sentenced him to 5 years in prison.

After that, Gideon sought relief from his conviction by filing a petition for writ of certiorari in the Florida Supreme Court. In his petition, Gideon challenged his conviction and sentence on the ground that the trial judge’s refusal to appoint counsel violated Gideon’s constitutional rights.  The Florida Supreme Court denied Gideon’s petition

While serving his sentence, Gideon acquainted himself with the law of the USA and became certain that his fundamental right has been indeed violated. He wrote a 5 page with a pencil in prison and sent it as a writ of certiorari to the United States Supreme Court. The Supreme Court not only agreed to hear the case but also assigned him prominent Washington DC attorney, future Supreme Court justice Abe fortes

The Gideon lawsuit went against the secretary of the Florida department of correction who was earlier HG Cochran but however he was retired and was replaced by Louie wainwright.

Issues raised

  1. Was the fundamental right of the petitioner vitiated by denying him representation from legal practitioner under 6th amendment to US Constitution?
  2. Could an accused charged with a felony not amounting to capital punishment be provided legal aid if he couldn’t afford it under the 6th amendment to US Constitution?



  • Appellate cited the 6th amendment to the US constitution where it is clearly mentioned: “ to have the assistance of counsel in his case “ and argued that it is state obligation to provide him lawyer if he couldn’t afford one. Appellate further argued that not providing a lawyer had violated the “due process” clause in the 14th  amendment to the US constitution
  • Appellate argued that the existing framework of state trial court to appoint counsel is untenable as the magistrate in preliminary hearing decided whether the case falls under “special circumstance” in order to decide whether a defendant can receive counsel. If determination were to occur at an early stage then the defendant without legal knowledge could not defend his case with competency. He is bound to lose due to a lack of technical knowledge even if he is not guilty.
  • Appellate cited an example of the greatest criminal attorney Clarence Drown who was charged with tampering and perjury. Even he hired an attorney to defend his case. Appellant suggested that a lawyer as prominent as him require a lawyer to defend his case than a man without legal knowledge irrespective of his education would require a lawyer too to defend his case.


  • Respondent cited the case of Powell Vs Alabama and Betta v. Brady, where it was held by the court that an accused shall be notified of his charges and a lawyer need to be appointed for them if they couldn’t afford it. But this applies only in the case of “special circumstance” where death might be the punishment
  • Respondent further argued that the appellant case doesn’t fall into such circumstance. So if he couldn’t afford a lawyer, he needs to defend the case himself

Related provisions

  • 6th amendment to US constitution In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the State and district wherein the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favour, and to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defence.
  • 14th amendment to US constitution No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.


US Supreme Court held that the Sixth Amendment guarantees a defendant’s right to counsel and that an indigent defendant shall be provided with a court-appointed lawyer in all offences. And that applies to criminal defendants in state court by way of the Fourteenth Amendment. The ruling in the case Betts v. Brady, 316 U.S. 455 (1942) was overturned, which prevented the court from appointing counsel for poor defendant unless the offence is punishable by death.

In a unanimous opinion(9-0) authored by Justice Hugo L. Black, the Court held that it was consistent with the Constitution to require state courts to appoint attorneys for defendants who could not afford to retain counsel on their own. The Court reasoned that the Sixth
Amendment’s guarantee of counsel is a fundamental and essential right made obligatory upon the states by the Fourteenth Amendment.

The Sixth Amendment guarantees the accused the right to the assistance of counsel in all criminal prosecutions and requires courts to provide counsel for defendants unable to hire counsel unless the right was competently and intelligently waived. The Gideon was later acquitted from all charges with the assistance of his counsel.

Concept highlighted

The right to a fair and just trial cannot be achieved until an accused be given appropriate representation regards to the case. The right to free legal aid to accuse those who couldn’t afford it not only provides a fair trial but also assure that justice prevails. It’s difficult to ask an accused to defend himself if he doesn’t have a knowledge of law or technical know-how. A lawyer prepare a client for trial, find pieces of evidence and argue for a client on the issues that are paramount to be answered in order to reach to end of the justice. The best lines by Abe Fortis that sum up the case

“An accused person cannot effectively defend himself without counsel. The accused cannot possibly evaluate the lawfulness of arrest the validity of the indictment or information. He cannot determine whether he is responsible for the crime or a lesser offence.”

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