Besides being one of the best case names in Supreme Court history, the 50-year-old Gideon v. Wainwright (1963) was the decision that gave all citizens–even poor ones–a chance, at least, at equal protection under the law. The Sixth Amendment already guaranteed this in federal cases, but only after the Gideon decision were states required broadly to provide counsel for indigent defendants. Clarence Earl Gideon had no money to speak of when a Florida court said it was unable to appoint counsel on his behalf since he was not accused of a capital offense, only burglary. Upon hearing that Mr. Gideon replied: “The United States Supreme Court says I am entitled to be represented by Counsel.”
Florida disagreed, and Gideon’s plainspoken eloquence was not a tool that allowed him to adequately defend himself in court. He was sent to prison for five years, time which he used to challenge the decision, ultimately seeing his plea for counsel settled by the Supreme Court. Granted a new trial after the high court decision, Gideon –with professional representation–was acquitted in an hour. This week, Steve Brill, the fine writer and founder of The American Lawyer, looks at the reach and impact of the Gideon decision in a piece from his magazine’s archives. Check it out, or see the movie starring Henry Fonda.