“If an obscure Florida convict named Clarence Earl Gideon had not sat down in his prison cell . . . to write a letter to the Supreme Court . . . the vast machinery of American law would have gone on functioning undisturbed. But Gideon did write that letter, the Court did look into his case . . . and the whole course of American legal history has been changed.” ~ Robert F. Kennedy
Today marks the anniversary of a landmark 1963 U.S. Supreme Court decision: Gideon v. Wainwright. For those not familiar with the background of the case, on June 3, 1961 Clarence Earl Gideon was accused of stealing from a pool room in Panama City, Florida. When he asked for a court-appointed lawyer he was denied one because, according to the laws of Florida at the time, lawyers appointed by the court were provided only provided when the case involved a capital offense. Having no choice, Gideon served as his own lawyer; he represented himself but was found guilty. He was then sent to prison for five years during which time he studied in the prison’s library. Gideon submitted a hand-written claim to the U.S. Supreme Court stating that under the provisions of the Sixth Amendment, he had been denied the right to an attorney.
In the Gideon case, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously that under 14th Amendment, state courts are required to ensure that counsel is provided to defendants who cannot pay for their own lawyers in criminal cases. This important provision extended what was already a requirement under the 6th Amendment on a federal level.
The impact of the Gideon case resonates to this day; it firmly established that economically disadvantaged defendants should have more of a level playing field in the eyes of the law. Additionally, the case began the creation of public defender’s offices across the nation. While the criminal justice system may still be considered unfair and unreliable, at the very least, the case determined theoretically that all people are supposed to be treated and represented equally.
Sometimes, the Supreme Court gets it right.