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You Have the Right to an Attorney: Gideon v. Wainwright at 50

By Robyn Hagan Cain | Last updated on

Anyone who has watched 'Law & Order' can recite the Miranda rights.

You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say or do can be held against you. You have a right to an attorney. If you cannot afford an attorney, one will be provided for you...

Attorneys may get second-billing on television dramas, but the right to an attorney is pretty damn important. And Gideon v. Wainwright -- the case that established that right in state non-capital trials -- turns 50 today.

In 1961, Clarence Gideon was charged in a Florida state court with breaking and entering with intent to commit a misdemeanor. The charged offense was a felony under Florida law.

When Gideon appeared in court -- without funds or a lawyer -- he asked the court to appoint counsel. The judge politely responded, "Mr. Gideon, I am sorry, but I cannot appoint Counsel to represent you in this case. Under the laws of the State of Florida, the only time the Court can appoint Counsel to represent a Defendant is when that person is charged with a capital offense. I am sorry, but I will have to deny your request to appoint Counsel to defend you in this case."

Gideon replied, "The United States Supreme Court says I am entitled to be represented by Counsel." But Gideon was wrong. Though the Supreme Court held in Powell v. Alabama that an state defendant in a capital case was entitled to counsel, the Court ruled in 1942's Betts v. Brady that indigent state defendants charged with non-capital crimes were not entitled to counsel.

Gideon was convicted after representing himself at trial.

After the Florida Supreme Court denied Gideon's petition for habeas relief, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to consider his petition. The Court appointed Abe Fortas, who would become a justice himself two years after this case was decided, to represent Gideon.

In reversing Gideon's conviction and expanding the right to counsel, Justice Hugo Black quoted Justice George Sutherland's opinion in Powell:

The right to be heard would be, in many cases, of little avail if it did not comprehend the right to be heard by counsel. Even the intelligent and educated layman has small and sometimes no skill in the science of law ... He requires the guiding hand of counsel at every step in the proceedings against him. Without it, though he be not guilty, he faces the danger of conviction because he does not know how to establish his innocence.

Gideon, with the assistance of an attorney, was acquitted upon retrial.

It's easy to become jaded about the legal profession, and acknowledge legal anniversaries with an obligatory eye-roll, but Gideon actually gave indigent defendants a fair shot at trial. And that's worth remembering. And celebrating.

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