Gideon v. Wainwright
372 U.S. 335 (1963)

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U.S. Supreme Court

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

Gideon v. Wainwright

No. 155

Argued January 15, 1963

Decided March 18, 1963

372 U.S. 335


Charged in a Florida State Court with a noncapital felony, petitioner appeared without funds and without counsel and asked the Court to appoint counsel for him, but this was denied on the ground that the state law permitted appointment of counsel for indigent defendants in capital cases only. Petitioner conducted his own defense about as well as could be expected of a layman, but he was convicted and sentenced to imprisonment. Subsequently, he applied to the State Supreme Court for a writ of habeas corpus, on the ground that his conviction violated his rights under the Federal Constitution. The State Supreme Court denied all relief.

Held: The right of an indigent defendant in a criminal trial to have the assistance of counsel is a fundamental right essential to a fair trial, and petitioner's trial and conviction without the assistance of counsel violated the Fourteenth Amendment. Betts v. Brady, 316 U. S. 455, overruled. Pp. 372 U. S. 336-345.

Reversed and cause remanded.

Page 372 U. S. 336

Primary Holding
In a unanimous decision, the Supreme Court established that the Fourteenth Amendment creates a right for criminal defendants who cannot pay for their own lawyers to have the state appoint attorneys on their behalf.
Clarence Earl Gideon was arrested and charged with breaking and entering with the intent to commit petty larceny, based on a burglary that was committed between midnight and 8 A.M. on June 3, 1961 at a pool room in Panama City, Florida. The arrest was based entirely on the report of a witness that he had seen Gideon in the pool room at 5:30 A.M. on the night of the crime and that Gideon had a wine bottle and money in his pockets.

Gideon could not afford a lawyer and requested the court to appoint counsel in his defense. However, his request was refused because Florida law allowed courts to appoint counsel for indigent defendants only in death penalty cases. Gideon undertook his own defense and was convicted. He was sentenced to five years in prison, where he crafted his own appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court by using prison writing materials and legal resources. The basis of his appeal was that his Sixth Amendment rights had been violated through the denial of counsel.
  • Abe Fortas (plaintiff)
  • Abe Krash (plaintiff)
  • Bruce Jacob (defendant)



  • Hugo Lafayette Black (Author)
  • Earl Warren
  • William Joseph Brennan, Jr.
  • Potter Stewart
  • Byron Raymond White
  • Arthur Joseph Goldberg

The majority was forced to untangle a pair of clashing precedents. In Powell v. Alabama, the Court had held that indigent defendants had the constitutional right to counsel in capital cases. In Betts v. Brady, by contrast, it had held that defendants in state court did not have a constitutional right to counsel unless the case was especially complicated or there were special circumstances such as illiteracy that would prevent the defendant from making an effective defense. The majority overruled Betts v. Brady, finding that the assistance of counsel was a fundamental right guaranteed by the Sixth Amendment, and thus a defendant who wished to have a lawyer but could not afford a lawyer should have an attorney appointed by the court. Black also squelched any uncertainty about whether Sixth Amendment rights applied to the states, finding that due process concerns and the need for a fair trial were just as applicable at that level as in federal court.


  • Tom C. Clark (Author)

Since the Sixth Amendment does not distinguish on its face between capital and non-capital cases, Clark found that there was no reasoning to read that distinction into it and limit Powell v. Alabama to capital cases.


  • John Marshall Harlan II (Author)

Criticizing the language about special circumstances in Betts v. Brady, Harlan felt that the existence of any criminal charge in itself was a sufficiently serious circumstance that merited invoking the right to counsel.


  • William Orville Douglas (Author)

Case Commentary

The Court would build on this decision in cases such as Miranda v. Arizona, which held in part that defendants have a right to counsel even before a trial begins. Gideon also would lead to the implementation of a vast public defender system at the state level, which has spawned many other concerns such as inadequate funding and training, excessive workloads, and conflicts of interest. However, those flaws should not overshadow the triumph for the rights of criminal defendants marked by this decision.

The ruling on appeal did not mean that Gideon was innocent of the charges but merely granted him the right to a new trial. However, Gideon's lawyer thoroughly discredited the testimony of the prosecution's only witness at the second trial, and he was acquitted after the jury had deliberated for only an hour.

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