Gideon v. Wainwright

1963 United States Supreme Court case

Gideon v. Wainwright, 372 U.S. 335 (1963), is a landmark case in United States Supreme Court history. The Court decided that if a person is charged with a crime, and they cannot pay for a lawyer, the state has to give them one for free. This case caused the public defender program to be created in the United States. (A public defender is a lawyer who defends clients who cannot pay them.)

Gideon v. Wainwright
Argued January 15, 1963
Decided March 18, 1963
Full case nameClarence E. Gideon v. Louie L. Wainwright, Corrections Director.
Citations372 U.S. 335 (more)
ArgumentOral argument
Prior historyGideon convicted, Bay County, Florida Circuit Court (1961); habeas request denied, Gideon v. Cochrane, 135 So. 2d 746 (Fla. 1961)
Subsequent historyAt 2nd trial, Gideon found not guilty, 153 So. 2d 299 (Fla. 1963)
States must assign free lawyers to poor defendants. The states must follow the Sixth Amendment's right to counsel rule because the Fourteenth Amendment requires due process.
Court membership
Chief Justice
Earl Warren
Associate Justices
Hugo Black · William O. Douglas
Tom C. Clark · John M. Harlan II
William J. Brennan, Jr. · Potter Stewart
Byron White · Arthur Goldberg
Case opinions
MajorityBlack, joined by Warren, Brennan, Stewart, White, Goldberg
Laws applied
Sixth and Fourteenth Amendments
This case overturned a previous ruling or rulings
Betts v. Brady (1942)



Between midnight and 8:00 a.m. on June 3, 1961, someone broke into the Bay Harbor Pool Room in Panama City, Florida. The person broke a door, smashed a cigarette machine and a record player, and stole coins from a cash register. Later that day, a witness said he had seen Clarence Earl Gideon in the pool room at around 5:30 that morning. The witness said Gideon left with a wine bottle and money in his pockets. Based only on this information, the police arrested Gideon and charged him with breaking and entering with intent to commit petty larceny. This charge means a person broke into a place, meaning to steal someone else's property. (In Florida, at the time, "petty" larceny meant that the person stole something that was worth less than $50.[1]) Under Florida law, if Gideon was found guilty, he could be put in prison for up to five years.[2]

Laws about rights to counsel


In state courts


In 1961, state courts had to follow the Supreme Court's decision in Betts v. Brady.[1] In this case, the Court ruled that if a defendant was charged with a capital crime, he had to be assigned a lawyer if he could not pay for one. However, as long as the defendant was not charged with a capital crime, the states did not have to assign free lawyers to every defendant who could not afford them.[3] The Court ruled that having a lawyer was not a basic right, and was not necessary for a fair trial.[3]

In their decision, the Court did rule that there were special cases where a court should assign a lawyer. In these special cases, not having a lawyer would make it difficult for a defendant to get a fair trial. These "specialized circumstances" included things like a defendant not having education or not knowing the rules of the court.[3]



What this meant was that in 1961, throughout the state of Florida, most defendants did not have lawyers. They had two choices: to plead guilty, or to defend themselves at trial. A Florida lawyer remembers that "[before] 1963, lawyers were likely to appear in Florida courtrooms only for the wealthy."[4]

In a letter he wrote from prison, Gideon once wrote:

One day when I was [in court], I seen two trials of two different men tried without attorneys. In one hour from the time they started they had two juries out and 15 minutes later they were found guilty and sentenced. Is this a fair trial? This is a common practice thru most of the state. [4]


Gideon's handwritten petition asking the Supreme Court to hear his case

First, Gideon filed a writ of habeas corpus with the Florida State Supreme Court. This is a request to be set free from unfair imprisonment. The Florida Supreme Court summarily denied his request – meaning they refused to even hold a court hearing or hear Gideon's arguments.[5]

From his prison cell, using the prison library and writing in pencil on prison paper, Gideon then appealed to the United States Supreme Court.[6] He asked the Supreme Court to review his case "because the 'due process clause' of the fourteenth admendment of the constitution and the fifth and sixth articales of the Bill of rights has been violated" sic.[6]

Gideon argued that he had been denied a lawyer, which violated his Sixth Amendment rights. In Betts v. Brady, the Supreme Court had ruled that the Sixth Amendment did not apply to the states. However, Gideon argued that it did, because of the Fourteenth Amendment.

The Fourteenth Amendment says that no state can take away any person's "life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person ... the equal protection of the laws."[7] Gideon argued that without assigning lawyers to poor defendants, the state of Florida was not giving those defendants due process or equal protection under the laws.

The Supreme Court agreed to hear Gideon's appeal. They had decided to think about whether Betts v. Brady should be "reconsidered" (re-thought).[8]

Supreme Court case


The basic question the Supreme Court had to answer had to do with the Sixth Amendment. They had already decided that under the Sixth Amendment, everyone accused of a crime in federal court had the right to have a lawyer, even if they could not pay for one. Now they needed to decide whether the Sixth Amendment applied to the states like it did to the federal government. In other words, did every person accused of a crime in state court have the right to a lawyer?[5]


Abe Fortas, Gideon's lawyer for the Supreme Court case

For Gideon


The Supreme Court had assigned Gideon a well-known lawyer from Washington, D.C. named Abe Fortas. (In 1965, Fortas would become a United States Supreme Court Justice.)[9]

Fortas argued that it was impossible for a person to get a fair trial without a lawyer. He argued that under the Fourteenth Amendment's "due process" requirement, the states had to give a person a fair trial before taking away their freedom. By denying Gideon a lawyer, the state of Florida denied him a fair trial and violated his right to due process under the Fourteenth Amendment.[10]

Against Gideon


A lawyer named Bruce Jacob argued the case against Gideon in front of the Supreme Court. He made a few different arguments.

Jacob argued that the Constitution allows states to make their own rules about the criminal procedure (how to run criminal trials). He talked about federalism – the separation of powers between federal and state governments that is written into the Constitution. By making a rule saying the states always had to give poor defendants free lawyers, the federal government would be over-stepping its powers. The states would be unable to make their own rules, and this would take away a right the Constitution gave to the states.[10]

Jacob also argued that a person does not need a lawyer to get a fair trial. He said that judges, and even prosecutors, help protect the rights of people who defend themselves in court.[10]

In addition, Jacob said that if the Court ruled in favor of Gideon, the effects would be harmful. If the Court ruled that a lawyer was needed for a fair trial, then the state would also have to give poor defendants free lawyers for other types of trials, like appeals and civil trials. The state would never have enough lawyers for this or enough money to pay them, he said.[10] Also, out of Florida's 8,000 prisoners, 65% – 5,200 prisoners – had not had lawyers. Jacob argued that many of these prisoners could go free if the Court ruled in favor of Gideon.[10]


Justice Hugo Black wrote the decision in Gideon v. Wainwright

On March 18, 1963, the Supreme Court voted 9-0 that Gideon was right. His rights had been violated.[11]

The Court ruled that the Sixth Amendment's right to a lawyer does apply to the states.[11] It reasoned that without a lawyer, a person cannot get a fair trial. If a person does not get a fair trial, they are not getting the "due process of law" that the Fourteenth Amendment guarantees.[11] In other words, because people have the right to due process, they have the right to a fair trial; and because they cannot get a fair trial without a lawyer, they also have the right to a lawyer.

The Court also said that its earlier decision in Betts v. Brady had been wrong. This ruling overturned the Supreme Court's earlier decision in Betts v. Brady (meaning the Betts decision was no longer valid).[11] Justice Black (who had disagreed with the Betts decision when the Court made it) wrote:

[In] our ... system of criminal justice, any person ... who is too poor to hire a lawyer, cannot be assured a fair trial unless counsel is provided for him.

... From the very beginning, our state and national constitutions have laid great [importance] on [protections] designed to assure fair trials before impartial [courts] in which every defendant stands equal before the law. This noble ideal cannot be realized if the poor man charged with crime has to face his accusers without a lawyer to assist him. [12]

After the Supreme Court




The Supreme Court's ruling did not mean that Gideon could automatically go free. It meant he got a new trial – this time, with a free lawyer assigned to him.[13]

Gideon asked for a lawyer named Fred Turner, who had a very good reputation, and the judge agreed. With Turner arguing the case, it took jurors less than an hour to find Gideon not guilty. Gideon was set free that day.[13]

"I believe that each era finds an improvement in law for the benefit of mankind."
– Quote on Gideon's gravestone

Gideon died on January 18, 1972, from cancer and tuberculosis.[1] He was buried in an unmarked grave in Missouri.[4]

Almost thirteen years later, the American Civil Liberties Union paid for a headstone to be put on Gideon's grave.[4] On the gravestone, there is a quote based on something Gideon wrote in a letter to Abe Fortas: "I believe that each era finds an improvement in law for the benefit of mankind."[a][14]p. 78



Based on the Supreme Court decision, each of Florida's 5,200 prisoners who had been convicted without counsel had the right to a new trial – this time with a lawyer. However, about 1,200 of these prisoners were set free without a new trial. This happened because witnesses in their cases had died or moved away, and the state of Florida did not have enough evidence to try them again.[1]

The same year Gideon was decided, the Florida state legislature set up their public defender system.[13] Throughout the 1960s, states that did not already have public defender systems created them.[13]



When Gideon was decided, there were still 13 states that did not always give lawyers to poor criminal defendants.[13] Like in Florida, many of these poor defendants did not get fair trials because they did not have a lawyer's help. After the Gideon decision, every person who is charged with a crime, in any court in the United States, has the right to a lawyer – even if they cannot pay for one. Defendants can decide they do not want a lawyer, but when they do that, they are giving up their right to a lawyer because they want to.[13]

Four years after Gideon, in a case called Burget v. Texas, the Supreme Court ruled that the Gideon decision applied "retroactively."[15] This means it applies even to defendants who were convicted before Gideon was decided in 1963. In other words, the Court was admitting that defendants should have had the right to counsel all along, even before Gideon. The Court decided in Gideon that people could not get a fair trial without lawyers; that was just as true for people who were convicted before 1963. These people, too, now deserved new trials, with free lawyers to help them.[13]

Gideon today


The Gideon decision still guarantees free counsel to every poor individual charged with a crime in the United States. However, many legal scholars agree that there are many problems with the public defender system in the 21st century. Because of these problems, they argue, many poor defendants are not getting the rights the Gideon decision gave them.[13][16][17][18]

The large number of people in the prison system has overwhelmed public defenders (Pictured: San Quentin Prison, 2006)

According to these scholars, one of the biggest problems with today's public defender programs is that they do not get enough money from the government to deal with the number of poor defendants they have to represent. This means:[17][18]

  • Programs cannot hire enough lawyers
  • Public defenders have to take on many different cases at a time
    • When lawyers have too many cases, they have very little time to work on each case, and they cannot do their jobs as well
  • These lawyers are not paid well, and because their jobs are also very stressful, many lawyers do not stay in public defender jobs for long
  • Some public defenders have very little experience in criminal law
  • Many poor defendants are given free counsel at trial, then later are told they have to pay for the lawyer's services[16]

When public defenders cannot do their jobs well because they have too many cases, have too little experience, or are too overwhelmed, defendants get more severe punishments when they are convicted.[18]


  1. In his letter to Abe Fortas, Gideon wrote: "I believe that each era finds a improvement in law each year brings something new for the benefit of mankind."[14]p.78


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 Jacob, Bruce R. (2014). "The Gideon Trials" (PDF). Iowa Law Review. 99: 2059–2101. Archived from the original (PDF) on April 5, 2016. Retrieved March 23, 2016.
  2. Fla. Stat. § 810.02 (1963).
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 Betts v. Brady, 316 U.S. 455 (1942) at 473.
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 4.3 Rashkind, Paul M. (March 2003). "Gideon v. Wainwright: A 40th Birthday Celebration and the Threat of a Midlife Crisis (online version)". The Florida Bar Journal. 77 (3). Florida Bar Association. Retrieved March 23, 2016.
  5. 5.0 5.1 "Facts and Case Summary – Gideon v. Wainwright". United States Courts. Administrative Office of the United States Courts. Retrieved March 23, 2016.
  6. 6.0 6.1 Gideon, Clarence Earl (January 5, 1962). "Petition for a Writ of Certiorari from Clarence Gideon to the Supreme Court of the United States, 01/05/1962". United States National Archives and Records Museum. Archived from the original on November 9, 2014. Retrieved March 23, 2016.
  7. "Constitution of the United States: Amendments 11-27". Charters of Freedom. United States National Archives and Records Administration. 30 October 2015. Retrieved March 17, 2016.
  8. Gideon v. Cochran, 370 U.S. 908 (1962).
  9. Krash, Abe (March 1998). "Architects of Gideon: Remembering Abe Fortas and Hugo Black". The Champion. National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. Archived from the original on April 7, 2016. Retrieved March 23, 2016.
  10. 10.0 10.1 10.2 10.3 10.4 "Gideon v. Wainwright: Oral Argument – January 15, 1963 [Transcript]". The Oyez Project. IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law at Illinois Institute of Technology. January 15, 1963. Retrieved March 23, 2016.
  11. 11.0 11.1 11.2 11.3 372 U.S. 335 (1963).
  12. 372 U.S. 335 (1963) at 344.
  13. 13.0 13.1 13.2 13.3 13.4 13.5 13.6 13.7 Jacob, Bruce R. (2003). "Memories of and Reflections About Gideon v. Wainwright" (PDF). Stetson Law Review. 33: 183–298. Retrieved March 22, 2016.
  14. 14.0 14.1 Lewis, Anthony (1966). Gideon's Trumpet. Vintage Books. ISBN 978-0394703152.
  15. 389 U.S. 109 (1967).
  16. 16.0 16.1 Colgan, Beth A. (2014). "Paying for Gideon" (PDF). Iowa Law Review. 99: 1929–1949. Archived from the original (PDF) on April 5, 2016. Retrieved March 23, 2016.
  17. 17.0 17.1 Jonathan A. Rapping (October 17, 2013). Reclaiming Our Rightful Place: Reviving the Hero Image of the Public Defender (PDF) (Speech). University of Iowa College of Law, Iowa City, Iowa (Fifty Years of Gideon: The Past, Present, and Future of the Right to Counsel Symposium). Archived from the original (PDF) on April 5, 2016. Retrieved March 23, 2016.
  18. 18.0 18.1 18.2 Giovanni, Thomas. Gideon at 50: Three Reforms to Revive the Right to Counsel (PDF) (Report). Patel, Roopal. The Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law. pp. 1–6. Retrieved March 23, 2016.