Gideon V. Wainwright

372 U.S. 335 (1963)

Facts
Clarence Gideon was arrested and charged in Florida state court with a felony, breaking and entering a pool room. When he appeared in court, Mr. Gideon informed the court that he had no attorney or funds to hire an attorney and asked the court to appoint counsel for him. His request was denied. Mr. Gideon represented himself at trial; he was convicted by a jury and sentenced to five years in state prison. He subsequently filed a habeas corpus petition attacking his conviction on the ground that the trial court refused to appoint counsel for him. Mr. Gideon's petition was handwritten to the Court.

Constitutional Issue
The issue considered by the Court in Gideon v. Wainwright was whether States are required, under the federal Constitution, to provide a person charged with a non-capital felony with the assistance of counsel if that person cannot afford to hire an attorney.

In reversing Mr. Gideon's conviction, the Court found that the right to counsel is so fundamental as to be applicable to the states through the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment:

"We concluded that certain fundamental rights, safeguarded by the first eight amendments against federal action, were also safeguarded against state action by the due process of law clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, and among them the fundamental right of the accused to the aid of counsel in a criminal prosecution.

The Court continued,

"The [assistance of counsel] is one of the safeguards of the Sixth Amendment deemed necessary to insure fundamental human rights of life and liberty. . . . The Sixth Amendment stands as a constant admonition that if the constitutional safeguards it provides be lost, justice will not still be done.

. . . [A]ny person haled into court, who is too poor to hire a lawyer, cannot be assured a fair trial unless counsel is provided for him. This seems to us to be an obvious truth. Governments, both state and federal, quite properly spend vast sums of money to establish machinery to try defendants accused of crime. Lawyers to prosecute are everywhere deemed essential to protect the public's interest in an orderly society. "

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