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How Gideon won the right to counsel for all American defendants

Today, we in Michigan take for granted that if we are ever charged with a crime, we have the right to have a defense attorney representing us, whether we can afford to pay the fee or not. But this was not the law of the land until surprisingly recently.

Later this month will be the 53rd anniversary of the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision Gideon v. Wainwright. In that case, the Court ruled that all indigent criminal defendants were entitled to have an attorney appointed to them. In other words, this did not become the law in all 50 states until 1963.

The case involved a man, Clarence Earl Gideon, who was sentenced to five years in prison in Florida for breaking and entering. During trial, when Gideon asked the judge for an attorney because he could not afford to hire one, the judge refused. He said that state law only entitled indigent defendants to a lawyer when charged with a capital offense.

Once in prison, Gideon, who had done his best to represent himself at trial, continued to work in his own defense. He studied in the prison library and filed a petition for habeas corpus, which he wrote by hand. Gideon argued that he was denied his Sixth Amendment rights at trial. The Florida Supreme Court denied the petition, but Gideon appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which reversed the state court’s denial on March 18, 1963.

Writing for the Court, Justice Hugo Black noted that the Sixth Amendment grants the right of any person accused of a crime to “enjoy the right... to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defence.” In addition, the Court had previously interpreted this right to exist regardless of ability to pay. Reversing a prior Supreme Court decision, Black wrote that this right was absolute, at the state level as well as the federal, due to the Fourteenth Amendment’s due process clause.

Gideon is one of the most important decisions ever issued by the Supreme Court. It led to the public defender system in many states, and explicitly rejected the notion that justice is only available to those who can afford it.

Source: Gideon v. Wainwright, 372 U.S. 335 (1963)

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