“If an obscure Florida convict named Clarence Earl Gideon had not sat down in his prison cell with a pencil and paper to write a letter to the Supreme Court, and if the Court had not taken the trouble to look for merit in that one crude petition ... the vast machinery of American law would have gone on functioning undisturbed. But Gideon did write that letter, the Court did look into his case ... and the whole course of American legal history has been changed.”
Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy
Speech Before the New England Conference on the
Defense of Indigent Persons Accused of Crime
November 1, 1963
Gideon v. Wainright 372 U.S, 335 (1963) is one of the most important criminal law cases in United States history. Gideon was accused of breaking into a pool room with intent to commit a misdemeanor-- a criminal felony.---under Florida Law. Clarence Gideon requested legal counsel which he could not afford---the trial judge refused because the case was noncapital(Betts v. Brady).---Gideon was convicted of the crime. Clarence Gideon appealed to the State Supreme Court and his Habeas Corpus Brief was denied upon consideration but without an Opinion. He finally wrote a Petition in pencil to the United States Supreme Court and the Court granted his Petition. The Supreme Court ultimately ruled that the right to counsel in felony cases is a fundamental right for Criminal defendants. This one Floridian changed the course of the criminal justice system more than a legion of law school graduates. Former Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy was right---the legal system would have continued undisturbed if Clarence Gideon failed to write one letter in pencil to the United States Supreme Court.
Abe Fortas who would later be appointed to the United States Supreme Court argued the case (Abe Fortas was also nominated to replace Chief Justice Earl Warren but Abe Fortas withdrew his name after a filibuster in the Senate). Abe Fortas was a student of Justice William O' Douglas at Yale Law school. Walter Mondale, Attorney General for the State of Minnesota, who would later be Vice President of the United States and presidential candidate sided with Gideon in Amici curiae brief along with 21 other states. Florida, Alabama, and North Carolina were against altering the status quo.
At the time, this case seemed like it would be the foundation for equal justice through effective legal representation. Notwithstanding, some would argue in later years that the criminal justice system is still stratified and ineffective for the indigent, and we are in an era of "negotiated justice" (plea bargain) as one of my law school professors asserted many years ago.
The most impressive person in this historic case is Clarence Gideon who changed the course of criminal law. He was granted a new trial and with the assistance of an Attorney he was found "not guilty". Famed actor Henry Fonda played Clarence Gideon in a movie called "Gideon's Trumpet."