Access to an attorney in criminal proceedings is a foundational right in America. Most people have a passing familiarity with the Miranda Warning, in which a law enforcement officer arresting a suspect must say, among other things, “You have the right to an attorney. If you cannot afford an attorney, one will be provided to you." But the right to have an attorney provided by the court has not always existed.
Early in our nation's history, the right to an attorney did not include the right of indigent defendants to be appointed a criminal defense lawyer. Indigent defendants are people accused of a crime who cannot afford to hire a lawyer on their own. It wasn't until 1963 that the U.S. Supreme Court held that criminal defendants accused of a felony in federal and state court have the right to an attorney in order to get a fair trial. That case was Gideon v. Wainwright.
Background of Gideon v. Wainwright
The Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution provides that “in all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right . . . to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defence." Nothing in the U.S. Constitution, however, specifically provides that state governments must provide attorneys for criminal defendants who cannot afford one. Prior to 1963, states varied in how they handled indigent defendants. Some provided an attorney for certain crimes; others did not. In many states, defendants were forced to represent themselves even when the potential sentence included years in prison. Prior to the 1930s, some defendants may not have had representation even in cases where the sentence was death.
Expanding the Right to an Attorney
In the 1930s the U.S. Supreme Court began to expand the right to counsel for criminal defendants who could not afford to hire one. In Powell v. Alabama, the Supreme Court overturned the convictions of nine black defendants who were convicted of rape and sentenced to death after a quick trial without the aid of an attorney. It was a narrow ruling, however, only mandating the assistance of counsel in capital crimes. States did not have to provide criminal defendants with attorneys for less serious crimes, including some felonies like burglary.
That left states some leeway to decide when to appoint counsel. In Betts v. Brady, decided in 1942, the Supreme Court affirmed that states were not required to provide an attorney for indigent defendants accused of crimes not punishable by death. The Supreme Court held in Betts that states must honor fundamental constitutional rights to a fair trial. However, the court in Betts held that the right to a court-appointed counsel in non-capital cases was not one of these fundamental rights.
Justice Hugo Black, along with two other justices, dissented in Betts. It was Justice Black who ultimately wrote the opinion in Gideon that overturned Betts and required the states provide attorneys for everyone accused of a crime.
What did Gideon do?
Clarence Gideon was not on a crusade to improve America's justice system. He was a man with an eighth-grade education who was accused of burglary in Florida. Homeless, he had been accused of several nonviolent crimes prior to his case before the U.S. Supreme Court.
He was charged with burglary in Florida and sentenced to five years in prison. He asked the state of Florida to provide him an attorney. However, Florida was one of the states that only provided indigent defendants with a lawyer when accused of either murder or rape.
Accused and tried for burglary, Gideon represented himself as best he could but was unsuccessful. The Florida Supreme Court ultimately upheld Florida's practice of not providing attorneys for people accused of anything but a capital offense.
The U.S. Supreme Court then took up the case and provided Gideon with an attorney.
What Were the Arguments?
Gideon argued that by failing to appoint counsel for him, Florida violated the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Under the Fourteenth Amendment, certain protections guaranteed in the Bill of Rights were held to also apply to states.
Gideon's argument was relatively straightforward: The right to an attorney is a fundamental right under the Sixth Amendment that also applies to the states through the Fourteenth Amendment. By refusing to appoint him a lawyer Florida was violating the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.
In order to side with Gideon, the Supreme Court would have to overturn Betts, which had almost identical facts to the case before them. Justice Black, who dissented in Betts, was happy to do so.
A Unanimous Court
Unlike Betts, Gideon was a unanimous opinion. The Court in Gideon found that not only did previous decisions back Gideon's claim, but “reason and reflection require us to recognize that in our adversary system of criminal justice, 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."
Of particular importance to the court was the adversarial nature of our justice system. States hire attorneys (prosecutors) to prove someone's guilt. Prosecutors are not neutral. If states have attorneys to prove their side, so should the defendant.
The Significance of Gideon v. Wainwright
Unlike many of the Supreme Court's momentous decisions, Gideon v. Wainwright was not particularly controversial. Twenty-two states supported Gideon's argument, filing briefs with the Supreme Court arguing that all states should appoint counsel to indigent defendants accused of felonies. After Gideon v. Wainwright, all states were required to do so.
In 1972, the Supreme Court held in Argersinger v. Hamlin that any defendant charged with a crime punishable by imprisonment had the right to an attorney, regardless of whether it was a felony or misdemeanor.
The Warren Court's Great Expansion of Rights for Criminal Defendants
Gideon v. Wainwright was one of many cases in which the Warren Court expanded the rights of criminal defendants. By 1963, the makeup of the Supreme Court had changed significantly from when Betts was decided. While Justice Black was still on the bench, the court under Chief Justice Earl Warren was dramatically reshaping American jurisprudence.
Throughout the 50s and 60s, the Warren Court gave criminal defendants the right to remain silent, the right to have an attorney during interrogations, and numerous other rights. For example, the Warren Court used the Fourteenth Amendment to guarantee the right to confront witnesses in state court, and the right against self-incrimination guaranteed in the Fifth Amendment. Gideon v. Wainwright was an important part of this expansion, embedding the Sixth Amendment right to counsel for all those accused of a crime.