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Landmark Cases of the U.S. Supreme Court

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Background Summary & Questions (•••)

Between midnight and 8:00 am on June 3, 1961, a burglary occurred at the Bay Harbor Pool Room in Panama City, Florida. Someone broke a window, smashed the cigarette machine and jukebox, and stole money from both. Later that day, a witness reported that he had seen Clarence Earl Gideon in the poolroom at around 5:30 that morning. When Gideon was found nearby with a pint of wine and some change in his pockets, the police arrested him and charged him with breaking and entering.

Gideon was a semi-literate drifter who could not afford a lawyer, so at the trial, he asked the judge to appoint one for him. Gideon argued that the Court should do so because the Sixth Amendment says that everyone is entitled to a lawyer. The judge denied his request, ruling that the state did not have to pay a poor person's legal defense unless he was charged with a capital crime or "special circumstances" existed. Gideon was left to represent himself.

As might be expected, Gideon did a poor job of defending himself. He had done no preparation work before his trial; his choice of witnesses was unusual—for instance, he called police officers who arrested him to testify on his behalf, not having any reason to believe they would help his case. He had no experience in cross-examining a witness in order to impeach that person's credibility, so his line of questioning was not as productive as a lawyer's would have been.

Gideon was found guilty of breaking and entering and petty larceny, which was a felony. He was sentenced to five years in a Florida state prison, partly because of his prior criminal record. While in prison, he began studying law in the prison library, believing that his Sixth Amendment rights had been violated when he was denied a defense lawyer paid for by the State. His study of the law led him to file a petition for habeas corpus with the Supreme Court of Florida, which asked that he be freed because he had been imprisoned illegally. After the Supreme Court of Florida rejected his petition, he handwrote a petition for a writ of certiorari to the Supreme Court of the United States, asking that it hear his case. The Court allowed him to file it in forma pauperis, which meant that the Court would waive the fees generally associated with such a petition. Generally, the Court dismisses most of these petitions; Gideon's was among those that it did not dismiss.

In state criminal trials, are indigent defendants entitled to a lawyer, even in noncapital cases? That was the question the Court agreed to decide when they accepted Gideon's petition. It was not merely a question of whether Gideon had been treated fairly; the Court's ruling would affect many other people who faced similar circumstances. In a previous decision, Betts v. Brady (1942), the Court had held that in state criminal trials, an indigent defendant must be supplied with an attorney only in special circumstances, which included complex charges and incompetence or illiteracy on the part of the defendant. Since Gideon had not claimed special circumstances, the Court would have to overturn Betts in order to rule in Gideon's favor. (Florida's state law provided indigent defendants with lawyers only in capital cases; many other states had laws providing lawyers to most or all indigent defendants.)

Questions to Consider
  1. What were the accusations against Clarence Gideon?
  2. Did Gideon seem capable of defending himself? How could a lawyer have helped him?
  3. What was unusual about the petition Gideon filed with the Supreme Court of the United States?
  4. Why did the Supreme Court of the United States agree to hear Gideon's case?
  5. What is the language in the Bill of Rights that is relevant to this case? Would you interpret those words to mean a defendant cannot be denied an attorney if he can afford one, or that a defendant must be provided an attorney even if he cannot afford one? Why?
  6. Do you think the states should be required to provide defendants like Gideon with a lawyer? Why or why not?

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