Richard Nisley

Only in America
History - American Released - Nov 12, 2017

A ne’er-do-well auto mechanic named Clarence Gideon was arrested for petty theft. Because he couldn’t afford an attorney, he asked the court to provide one for him. The court denied his request. He was tried, convicted and sentenced to five years in Florida State Prison.

Clarence Gideon wasn’t ready to give up just yet. He borrowed a book from the prison library and boned up on the appeals process. Then, with a pencil and prison letterhead, he appealed directly to the United States Supreme Court for a writ of certiorari. He said the state court had deprived him of his Sixth Amendment right to an attorney and thus denied due process under the Fourteenth Amendment. As a layman, Gideon said he was incapable of defending himself in court, and that is why he was now serving time in prison.

Gideon’s chance of finding a needle in a haystack was infinitely better than in having his case heard before the Supreme Court. But, as fate would have it, the case of Gideon v. Wainwright (1963) was not only heard, but changed the course of American legal history. Gideon’s incredible story, and the story of how the Supreme Court chooses and decides cases, is the subject of “Gideon’s Trumpet” (1964), by Anthony Lewis. Lewis knows the ins and outs of the American judicial system. He was a New York Times reporter who covered the Supreme Court from 1957 to 1964. He also taught law at Harvard from 1974 to 1989.

The Supreme Court receives about 2,500 appeals each term (or did so at the time of Gideon’s appeal) of which about 150 are actually granted a hearing. “Review by the Supreme Court is in the interest of the law, its appropriate exposition and enforcement, not in the mere interest of the litigants,” the author quotes Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes. In other words, the Court accepted Gideon’s appeal not out of the goodness of its heart but to address a legal question. The question that interested the Court was whether or not criminal defendants tried in state court unable to afford an attorney were being denied their Constitutional rights. In federal court, defendants without means were provided legal counsel by the court. Under federal law, it was their Constitutional right. But in state court? That was a different issue all together. Until Gideon’s appeal, the states were not bound by Bill of Rights guarantees. “Our Constitution created a system of dual governments, state and federal, each with its own laws,” writes the author. Tried in state court, Gideon was not guaranteed the right to an attorney. Fortunately for him, issues of federal law sometimes arise in state courts, and therefore can be appealed, and this was one of them.

Twenty years earlier, in a similar case (Betts v. Brady, 1942), the Court ruled in favor of the state—an indigent criminal defendant did not have the right to an attorney in state court. By 1962, when Gideon filed his appeal, the makeup of the court had changed significantly (more liberal/more activist) and had decided it was time to reexamine the merits of the Court’s prior decision. Having accepted Gideon’s appeal, the Court asked one of the top attorneys in the nation (future Supreme Court justice Abe Fortas) to represent Gideon. Working pro bono, Fortas put the expertise of his powerful Washington law firm to work on the case, with no stone left unturned.

The state of Florida, meanwhile, assigned a 26-year-old assistant attorney general named Bruce Robert Jacob to represent the state. While he didn’t have the resources of Abe Fortas’s powerful law firm, Jacob did have a long history of legal precedent on his side. He argued that defendants without means were perfectly capable of acting as their own attorney. Indeed, Gideon had done quite well representing himself in court, said Jacob—in a losing cause. Jacob also made an appeal to all 49 states to file friend-of-court briefs on behalf of Florida. There was one very big problem, however: 23 states favored a new standard of fairness on state criminal procedure. Some were already providing attorneys to defendants who could not afford one. Only two states—Alabama and North Carolina—actually spoke on behalf of Florida.

The Supreme Court’s ruling was unanimous. States were ordered to provide an attorney to indigent defendants who asked for one, not just in state capital offenses, but in all criminal cases. Gideon’s conviction was overturned. He was assigned an attorney and his case was retried in Florida court. This time he was acquitted and was released from prison, having served two years.

Only in America do such things happen.

Gideon v. Wainwright was one of three Supreme Court decisions to significantly alter criminal procedure so that it better protected the rights of the accused, not just in some states but in all states. The other two were Miranda v. Arizona (1966) and Mapp v. Ohio (1961). At the time, conservative critics accused the Court of legislating rather than adjudicating the law. Perhaps. But how much longer would it have taken Congress to pass such legislation, if ever?

Equal protection under the law means equal protection in whatever state you happen to reside. Prior to Gideon v. Wainwright, that was not the case.

Justice Walter Schaefer of Illinois has advanced “the relation of the United States to the rest of the world” as one argument for national standards of criminal procedure. “The quality of a nation’s civilization can be largely measured by the method it uses in the enforcement of its criminal law.” Adds the author, “The Supreme Court is in a strategic position to give voice to national ideals.”

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