1963 March 18

Gideon’s Trumpet: The Right to an Attorney at Trial


In Gideon v. Wainwright, decided on this day, the Supreme Court unanimously ruled that all persons facing felony charges have a right to an attorney under the Sixth Amendment. Before the decision, it was possible in about half the states for someone to be arrested, convicted and sentenced to prison without ever seeing an attorney. Clarence Gideon had been sentenced to five years in prison for a burglary and had never seen a lawyer. In his retrial after the Supreme Court overturned his conviction, the jury took one hour to acquit him of the original charges.

The Gideon decision was a historic step forward in providing basic due process for poor defendants. One of its major consequences was to stimulate the creation of public defenders offices across the country to provide lawyers for poor defendants. Fifty years later, however, the promise of Gideon was not being fulfilled, and largely because of inadequate funding many if not most public defenders officers were understaffed and overwhelmed by the number of cases (see the reports cited below).

The Court: “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. This seems to us to be an obvious truth.”

Read the classic account of the case: Anthony Lewis, Gideon’s Trumpet (1964)

See the documentary on Clarence Gideon:

Learn more, read Gideon at 50 by the Brennan Center for Justice: http://www.brennancenter.org/sites/default/files/publications/Gideon_Report_040913.pdf

Read about the current crisis regarding the right to counsel: http://www.constitutionproject.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/10/139.pdf

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