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Fifty years of Gideon v. Wainwright

(courtesy of pbs.org)

Today marks the fiftieth anniversary of Gideon v. Wainwright, a landmark Supreme Court decision concerning the right to counsel.  Clarence Earl Gideon was a poor man living in Florida in 1961.  A single eyewitness accused Gideon of breaking into a local pool hall and stealing money from its vending machines.  At this time, a felonious offense.  After requesting and being denied legal counsel by the trial judge, Gideon was sentenced to 5 years in state prison.

While incarcerated, Gideon began reading and researching his case.  From his prison cell, he sent a handwritten petition to the Supreme Court requesting review of his case.  The Court granted certiorari and Abe Fortas, who would later become a Supreme Court justice, was appointed to represent Gideon.  A complete transcript and audio of the oral arguments is available from the Oyez Project.

On March 18th, 1963, in an opinion penned by Justice Hugo Black, the Court ruled in Gideon’s favor.  Invoking the Sixth Amendment, the Supreme Court’s decision in Gideon requires states to provide legal counsel to indigent defendants charged with felonies.  Subsequent decisions expanded this right to all cases punishable by imprisonment (See Argersinger v. Hamlin, 1972).

On remand, Gideon received a new trial and — with the assistance of legal counsel — was acquitted.  In 1964, Gideon’s story was made into a book, Gideon’s Trumpet (later, a critically acclaimed made-for-television movie).  Yet controversy rages on as to whether the goal of providing effective legal counsel to indigent defendants, as endorsed by Gideon, has ever been realized.



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