Gideon v. Wainwright (1963)


Gideon v Wainwright (1963), a landmark Supreme Court case that under the Sixth Amendment requires states to provide counsel in criminal cases to any defendants unable to afford their own attorney. In 1961, Clarence Earl Gideon was charged with breaking and entering in a Florida poolroom and once in trial, asked the court to appoint him an attorney. Prior to the Supreme Court’s ruling, indigent defendants were not provided counsel unless charged of a capital offence. Given a 5 year prison sentence, Gideon felt unfairly treated by the courts and filed a writ of habeas corpus to the Florida Supreme Court, but was denied. Gideon then issued an appeal to the United States Supreme Court. In the unanimous decision, the Supreme Court ruled that Gideon’s trial was unconstitutional due to the lack of a defense attorney at his trial. The Court argued that the Sixth Amendment requires a state to provide a defense lawyer because lawyers are vital to a “fair trial.” The Supreme Court noted that federal government as well as the states are bound to Sixth Amendment, which ultimately lead to extending the right to counsel for indigent defendants. Therefore, the Court reasoned, its requirements could not turn on such a distinction. Therefore, the right to legal representation was acknowledged to be a right essential to due process in almost all cases.
In a major victory for indigent persons, the ruling created a precedent for future cases through the creation of the public defender system. The implementation of this system has been very beneficial for the indigent community, but it also has created many issues in regards to workload and representation for defenders. More than half of criminal cases are represented by public defenders and the caseload increases each year. Overcome with heavy workloads, public defenders does not possess the abundant amount of time that the client deserves to adequately review and prep for the trial. As a result, this issue forces many cases to reach plea deals.

First Timeline


The Bay Harbor Poolroom was broken into on June 3, 1961. The police arrested Gideon after an eyewitness led them to Gideon and charged him with the felony of breaking and entering with intent to commit petit larceny. Gideon was tried on August 4, 1961, and defended himself without an appointed attorney by the state. During a previous case, Powell v. Alabama (1932), an indignant defendant was not provided adequate counsel and was sentenced to death by a lower state court. The Supreme Court concluded that “where a defendant is unable to employ counsel, and is incapable adequately of making his own defense because of ignorance, feeble mindedness, illiteracy or the like, it is the duty of the court, whether requested or not, to assign counsel for him as a necessary requisite of due process of law.” The Court expressed their concerns of inadequate counsel and ruled in favor of the indignant defendants.

At that time, in a previous US Supreme Court ruling, Betts v. Brady (1942), the Supreme Court ruled that states were not required to provide legal counsel to indigent defendants. Although the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the state, Justice Hugo Black’s dissenting opinion expressed his displeasure of the ruling by writing, “It is not to be thought of, in a civilized community, for a moment, that any citizen put in jeopardy of life or liberty should be debarred of counsel because he was too poor to employ such aid. No Court could be respected, or respect itself, to sit and hear [p477] such a trial. The defense of the poor in such cases is a duty resting somewhere, which will be at once conceded as essential to the accused, to the Court, and to the public.” Furthermore, Justice Black’s view of failing to provide counsel impeded the indignant defendants outcome in receiving a fair trial due to the lack of adequate representation.
The ruling determined that the 14th amendment protected defendants that did not have a fair trial, but not indigent defendants unable to provide counsel to represent their case. Later, Gideon was found guilty and, three weeks later, was sentenced to five years in the state penitentiary. Gideon did not take an appeal from his conviction. Instead, he filed a habeas corpus petition in the Florida Supreme Court. In the petition, Gideon alleged that counsel should have been appointed  him. The Florida Supreme Court denied the habeas petition for the reason that there was no absolute right to have counsel appointed in every felony case under United States Supreme Court decisions. That decision was correct under the law that existed then. No opinion was written because none was called for under the principles of Betts. In January 1962, Gideon filed a petition for certiorari in the U.S Supreme Court seeking review of the Florida Supreme Court’s denial. Gideon argued that the Fourteenth Amendment applied the rights of the Sixth Amendment to State courts. The Supreme Court heard the case, and Gideon was awarded the right to another fair trial, where he was appointed counsel and acquitted on all charges.


Procedural History

  • June 3rd, 1961- Clarence Earl Gideon is arrested for breaking into a pool hall to commit a misdemeanor.
  • August 4th, 1961- Clarence Gideon was denied of legal counsel.
  • August 26th, 1961- Sentenced to five years in prison.
  • January 8th, 1962- Clarence Gideon’s petition for certiorari reaches Supreme Court.
  • March 8th, 1962- Supreme Court orders Florida to respond to Gideon’s petition.
  • June 4th, 1962- Certiorari is granted and the question raised is “Should Betts v. Brady be reconsidered?”
  • January 15th, 1963- Oral arguments begin in Gideon v. Wainwright
  • March 18th, 1963- The Supreme Court unanimously rules in favor of Clarence Gideon and Gideon’s conviction is reversed.


In criminal prosecutions, are states required to provide counsel to indigent defendants through the sixth and fourteenth amendment?  

Arguments by Petitioner


Arguments by Respondent



The Supreme Court overturned Gideon’s conviction and agreed that he had not been given a fair trial. The Supreme Court ruled unanimously, 9-0, in the case. Written by Justice Hugo Black, the ruling overturned Betts v. Brady and held that the right to the assistance of counsel in felony criminal cases is a fundamental right, making the Sixth Amendment’s provision of right to counsel applicable in state courts. The decision established that all states must provide lawyers for indigent defendants in felony cases and also concluded that the Sixth Amendment’s guarantee of a right to counsel was both fundamental and essential to a fair trial in both state and federal courts.

Majority Opinion

Justice Black wrote the majority opinion which was joined by Justices Warren, Douglas, Brennan, Stewart, White, Clark, Harlan, and Goldberg. The Court held that that the Sixth Amendment Constitutional right reserves defendants the right to counsel in state criminal trials where the defendant is charged with a serious offense even if they cannot afford or retain counsel on their own. The Court argued that the Sixth Amendment requires a state to provide defense lawyers if necessary because such lawyers are essential to a “fair trial.” Justice Black noted that “that government hires lawyers to prosecute and defendants who have the money hire lawyers to defend are the strongest indications of the widespread belief that lawyers in criminal courts are necessities, not luxuries.” Indignant defendants should also be given the vital counsel in order to secure fairness in the courtroom.

Concurring Opinion (Clark)

In Justice Clark’s concurring opinion, he argues that text of the constitution guarantees the right to counsel as a protection of due process. The constitution does not make any distinctions between capital and noncapital cases, so he adds that to apply the right to all cases to avoid discrimination. He further stipulates that the Sixth Amendment requires the appointment of counsel in all criminal prosecutions and that the language of the Amendment is very clear.

Concurring Opinion (Harlan)

Justice John Harlan’s concurring opinion argued that the majority decision served as an extension of an earlier precedent that established the existence of a serious criminal charge to be a “special circumstance” that requires the appointment of counsel. Justice Harlan states that he wants to do away with “special circumstances” all together and provide a right to counsel for all under the Fourteenth Amendment. Justice Harlan also argued to extend this right in both federal and state courts.

Concurring Opinion (Douglas)

Justice Douglas’ concurring opinion argued that the Fourteenth Amendment protects from the infringements by the states and does not provide a watered down version of the Bill of Rights. Justice Douglas further states that constitutional questions are always open, so any decision set does not settle the matter.

Full Text of Opinions

Decision Analysis


Significance / Impact

After the court unanimously ruled in favor of the defendant, Gideon was given a new trial— with counsel and was acquitted of all charges. Gideon v Wainwright marked a historic victory to indigent individuals across the country. The Supreme Court’s ruling overturned the 1942 case of Betts v Brady 316 U.S. 455, which denied counsel to indigent defendants when prosecuted by a state. In the unanimous ruling of Gideon v Wainwright, the court acknowledges the rights of defendants in federal and state courts regardless of income; therefore, creating the Public Defender system.

The services of Public Defenders are very prominent in the U.S. legal system. Over 80% of felonies committed are from those who are indigent and in need legal counsel. (OJP, 2011). In 2007, 957 public defender offices took on 5,572,450 cases for indigent defendants. These figures have raised awareness for more public defenders and often times states have enacted caseload limits to defenders to ensure quality representation to defendants. (BJS,2007)

Second Timeline

Scholarly Commentary and Debate

Constitutional Provisions

  • 6th Amendment 
  • 14th Amendment 

Important Precedents

  • Hurtado v. California (1884)
  • Powell v. Alabama (1932)
  • Grosjean v. American Press (1936)
  • Palko v. Connecticut (1937)
  • Johnson v. Zerbst (1938)
  • Betts v. Brady (1942)
  • Griffin v. Illinois (1956)

Government Action Under Review

  • Lack of government action to provide an indigent defendant with an attorney.

Important Subsequent Cases

  • Douglas v California (1963)
  • Massiah v. United States (1964)
  • Escobedo v. Illinois (1964)
  • Miranda v. Arizona (1966)
  • Argersinger v. Hamlin (1972)

Web Resources

ArnoldPorterLLP. “Defending Gideon: A Documentary.” YouTube. June 26, 2013. Accessed April 26, 2017. Available here.

Chicago-Kent College of Law at Illinois Tech. “Gideon v. Wainwright.” Oyez. (accessed April 26, 2017). Available here.

“Gideon v. Wainwright 372 U.S. 335 (1963).” Justia Law. Accessed April 26, 2017.  Available here.

McBride, Alex . “Lan.” PBS. December 2006. Accessed April 25, 2017. Available here.


Academic Books, Articles and Law Reviews.

JACOB, BRUCE R. “50 YEARS LATER: MEMORIES OF GIDEON V. WAINWRIGHT. (cover story).” Florida Bar Journal 87, no. 3 (March 2013): 10-17. Legal Collection, EBSCOhost (accessed April 26, 2017). Available here.

Leiter, Richard A., Roy M. Mersky, and Gary R. Hartman. 2012. Landmark Supreme Court cases. [electronic resource] : the most influential decisions of the Supreme Court of the United States. n.p.: New York : Facts On File, c2012., 2012. GEORGIA STATE UNIV’s Catalog, EBSCOhost (accessed April 26, 2017). Available here.



Spring 2017: Andres Mora, Maria Almanza, Jasmeet Nagi, Omar Suliman, Roger Turner.

Tasks for Future Contributors

For future contributors, please find/add more to: Arguments by petitioner, arguments by respondent, decision analysis, and scholarly commentary and debate.