Historical Gideon v. Wainwright: The Sixth Amendment Right to Counsel
In Gideon v. Wainwright, 372 U.S. 335 (1963), the U.S. Supreme Court held that the Sixth Amendment’s guarantee of counsel applies to the states via the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.
The Court’s unanimous decision expressly overruled the Court’s earlier decision in Betts v. Brady, 316 U.S. 455 (1942).
The Facts of the Case
After being charged in a Florida State Court with breaking and entering with the intent to commit a misdemeanor, a noncapital felony, Clarence Earl Gideon appeared in court and asked the Court to appoint counsel for him. His request was denied on the ground that Florida state law permitted appointment of counsel for indigent defendants in capital cases only.
Gideon subsequently conducted his own defense, but he was convicted and sentenced to imprisonment. Subsequently, he applied to the State Supreme Court for a writ of habeas corpus, arguing that the failure to appoint counsel violated his rights under the U.S. Constitution. After the State Supreme Court denied all relief, Gideon filed a hand-written petition with the U.S. Supreme Court. The justices granted review to determine whether the Sixth Amendment right to counsel applies to state court defendants.
The Legal Background
The Sixth Amendment provides, “In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right . . . to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defense.”
The Supreme Court previously interpreted the Sixth Amendment to mean that counsel must be provided for defendants in federal courts who unable to employ counsel unless the right is competently and intelligently waived. In Betts v. Brady, the Court concluded that the right to counsel is not extended to indigent defendants in state courts by the Fourteenth Amendment.
The Court’s Decision
By a vote of 9-0, the Supreme Court held that the right of an indigent defendant in a criminal trial to have the assistance of counsel is a fundamental right essential to a fair trial and that Betts v. Brady should be overruled. Accordingly, Gideon’s trial and conviction without the assistance of counsel violated the Fourteenth Amendment.
Justice Hugo L. Black authored the Court’s opinion. Justice William O. Douglas, Justice Tom C. Clark, and Justice John M. Harlan wrote concurring opinions.
In reaching its decision, the Court stated that “reason and reflection require us to recognize that in our adversary system of criminal justice, any person hauled into court, who is too poor to hire a lawyer, cannot be assured a fair trial unless counsel is provided for him.”
Justice Black further noted that the “noble ideal” of “fair trials before impartial tribunals in which ever defendant stands equal before the law . . . cannot be realized if the poor man charged with crime has to face his accusers without a lawyer to assist him.”
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- Establishment ClauseFree Exercise Clause
- Freedom of Speech
- Freedoms of Press
- Freedom of Assembly, and Petitition
- The Right to Bear Arms
- Unreasonable Searches and Seizures
- Due Process
- Eminent Domain
- Rights of Criminal Defendants
Preamble to the Bill of Rights
Congress of the United States begun and held at the City of New-York, on Wednesday the fourth of March, one thousand seven hundred and eighty nine.
THE Conventions of a number of the States, having at the time of their adopting the Constitution, expressed a desire, in order to prevent misconstruction or abuse of its powers, that further declaratory and restrictive clauses should be added: And as extending the ground of public confidence in the Government, will best ensure the beneficent ends of its institution.