Gideon’s trumpet: Toward equality in criminal justice

Gideon v. Wainwright (1963), entrenched in American folklore by a best-selling book and a popular film, was one of the most famous decisions rendered by the Warren court. In a landmark opinion that reflected the Supreme Court’s determination to create one rule for rich and poor alike, the high tribunal held for the first time that the Sixth Amendment requires states to provide for court-appointed attorneys in all felony cases.

Justice Hugo Black wrote the Court’s 9-0 opinion: “From the very beginning, our state and national constitutions and laws have laid great emphasis on safeguards designed to assure fair trials. This noble ideal cannot be realized if a poor man charged with a crime has to face his accusers without a lawyer to assist him.” Black insisted that no person should be deprived of counsel because of his poverty. To do so, he believed, violated the Sixth Amendment’s guarantee of the right counsel, as well as the promise of our democratic society to provide equal justice under the law.

The case brought to national prominence Clarence Earl Gideon, who was charged with breaking and entering the Bay Harbor (Florida) poolroom, with intent to commit a misdemeanor, a felony under state law. Gideon had no money and, at trial, asked the presiding judge to appoint an attorney to represent him. The judge refused his request on grounds that Florida law granted him no such authority. Gideon protested and asserted a constitutional right to counsel under the Sixth Amendment. The trial court explained that the Supreme Court in Betts v. Brady, in 1942, had held that criminal defendants in federal cases possessed the right to court-appointed counsel, but that ruling did not extend to state cases.

Gideon conducted his own defense, “about as well as could be expected from a layman,” Justice Black observed in his opinion for the Supreme Court in Gideon v. Wainwright. Gideon was not skilled in the arts of lawyering, and lacked knowledge about discovery, cross examination and the rules governing the admissibility of evidence, among other shortcomings. He was convicted and, while in prison, in his own handwriting, appealed in forma pauperis—in the character of a pauper—to the Supreme Court, asserting denial of his Sixth Amendment right to counsel.

The Supreme Court appointed a brilliant attorney, Abe Fortas, who later became Justice Fortas. Fortas was asked by the Court to address the question of whether Betts v. Brady should be overturned.

He was in the enviable position of drawing upon Justice Black’s dissenting opinion in Betts v. Brady. When the Court unanimously agreed to overturn Betts, Chief Justice Earl Warren graciously assigned to Black the opportunity of writing the Court’s opinion, which meant he could write into law his dissent in Betts.

Justice Black wrote for the Court that right to counsel guaranteed by the Sixth Amendment was a “fundamental” right that should be incorporated into the Due Process Clause of the 14th Amendment and applied to the states. Black observed that if Gideon’s was a federal case that he would clearly enjoy the right to counsel. Why, he asked rhetorically, should a federal right, fundamental to a fair trial and equal justice under law, be denied in state court. “It is an obvious truth,” he wrote, that “any person haled into court, who is too poor to hire a lawyer, cannot be assured a fair trial unless counsel is provided for him.”

At retrial, Gideon was represented by a court-appointed attorney. His lawyer uncovered new witnesses and evidence and won an acquittal from the jury. The story of Gideon’s vindication was beautifully told by the prize-winning author, and New York Times columnist, Anthony Lewis, in “Gideon’s Trumpet,” an instant classic used in classrooms across the nation to introduce readers to the landmark case and the workings of the criminal justice system. Lewis’s book was made into a movie by the same title, in which the acclaimed actor, Henry Fonda, portrayed Gideon. The book and the film reward attention 50 years after the Court’s decision.

Gideon stood at the center of the Warren Court’s commitment to the principle of equality in criminal justice. The Court’s rulings expanded the principle of due process of law as a means of constitutionalizing state criminal proceedings and aimed to reduce the gap between the affluent and the poor. It’s reach extended to requiring, for example, that states furnish indigent defendants in criminal trials with transcripts of a trial record in appellate cases. Otherwise, the appellate review would be inadequate. Years later, the Court under the leadership of Chief Justice Warren Burger, named to the Court by President Richard Nixon, extended the right to counsel to misdemeanors when the defendant is sentenced to imprisonment.

Gideon is remembered as one of Justice Black’s finest opinions, in a category with his opinions in the Pentagon Papers Case and the Steel Seizure Case. It stands as a tribute to his persistence in the effort to extend the right to counsel to state cases, a reflection of the experiences of a Justice born into poverty in Clay County, Alabama, who learned as a police court judge, of the importance of legal representation for the poor who, otherwise, would be denied equal justice under the law.