GIDEON V. WAINWRIGHT (1963)
Winston Churchill once said that the true measure of a civilized society is how it treats people accused of crimes. Although the Bill of Rights included a number of protections for people accused of crime, many of these guarantees went unenforced in state courts, which were held to be outside the reach of the federal Bill of Rights. This policy began to change in the 1930s, and during the 1960s was transformed with almost breathtaking speed by the Supreme Court headed by Earl Warren.
The American right to have assistance of counsel in all criminal cases marked a significant departure from the earlier English practice, which allowed lawyers only in some misdemeanor cases. In ordinary felony cases Great Britain did not permit counsel at all until 1836, although judges evidently often bent this rule. Twelve of the original thirteen states rejected the English doctrine, and extended the right to have counsel to all criminal cases. Although the Sixth Amendment, which guarantees the right to counsel, makes no reference to providing lawyers for poor people, the federal government began the practice of appointing lawyers in serious cases in the nineteenth century, and a number of states also provided counsel for indigents in felony trials in the twentieth century.
In 1932, in a famous case entitled Powell v. Alabama, the Court had held that the right to a lawyer was an essential safeguard of liberty, but it left it to the states to determine just how far this right extended. In Betts v. Brady (1942), the justices ruled that whether a lawyer was required would depend upon the circumstances in each case. In some circumstances, the Court held a lawyer was essential to a fair trial; in others a lawyer might not be needed.
For the next twenty years the Court heard many cases, and in nearly all of them ruled that a lawyer was in fact necessary. By the early 1960s a majority of the Court felt the time had come to jettison the Betts rule and extend the Sixth Amendment right to counsel to all persons accused of crime. That ruling came in Gideon v. Wainwright.
The whole rationale behind this and other Court rulings in the 1960s was the belief that the exercise of constitutional rights ought not to depend on a person's wealth or education. In terms of this section, the Court opened up the criminal justice system, made it more democratic, and permitted even people accused of crimes, perhaps the most despised group in a society, to share fully in what the Constitution promised to all Americans, basic liberties to ensure that they received a fair trial.
For further reading: Anthony Lewis, Gideon's Trumpet (1964); A.E. Dick Howard, ed., Criminal Justice in Our Time (1965); Fred Graham, The Due Process Revolution (1970).
GIDEON V. WAINWRIGHT
Justice Black delivered the opinion of the Court.
Petitioner was charged in a Florida state court with having broken and entered a poolroom with intent to commit a misdemeanor. This offense is a felony under Florida law. Appearing in court without funds and without a lawyer, petitioner asked the court to appoint counsel for him, whereupon the following colloquy took place:
The Court: 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.
The Defendant: The United States Supreme Court says I am entitled to be represented by Counsel.
Put to trial before a jury, Gideon conducted his defense about as well as could be expected from a layman. He made an opening statement to the jury, cross-examined the State's witnesses, presented witnesses in his own defense, declined to testify himself, and made a short argument "emphasizing his innocence to the charge contained in the information filed in this case." The jury returned a verdict of guilty, and petitioner was sentenced to serve five years in the state prison. Later, petitioner filed in the Florida Supreme Court this habeas corpus petition attacking his conviction and sentence on the ground that the trail court's refusal to appoint counsel for him denied him rights "guaranteed by the Constitution and the Bill of Rights by the United States Government." Treating the petition for habeas corpus as properly before it, the State Supreme Court, "upon consideration thereof" but without an opinion, denied all relief. Since 1942, when Betts v. Brady was decided by a divided Court, the problem of a defendant's federal constitutional right to counsel in a state court has been a continuing source of controversy and litigation in both state and federal courts. To give this problem another review here, we granted certiorari....
The Sixth Amendment provides, "In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right...to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defense." We have construed this to mean that in federal courts counsel must be provided for defendants unable to employ counsel unless the right is competently and intelligently waived. Betts argued that this right is extended to indigent defendants in state courts by the Fourteenth Amendment. In response the Court stated that, while the Sixth Amendment laid down "no rule for the conduct of the States, the question recurs whether the constraint laid by the Amendment upon the national courts expresses a rule so fundamental and essential to a fair trial, and so, to due process of law, that it is made obligatory upon the States by the Fourteenth Amendment." In order to decide whether the Sixth Amendment's guarantee of counsel is of this fundamental nature, the Court in Betts set out and considered "relevant data on the subject...afforded by constitutional and statutory provisions subsisting in the colonies and the States prior to the inclusion of the Bill of Rights in the national Constitution, and in the constitutional, legislative, and judicial history of the States to the present date." On the basis of this historical data the Court concluded that "appointment of the counsel is not a fundamental right, essential to a fair trial." It was for this reason the Betts Court refused to accept the contention that the Sixth Amendment's guarantee of counsel for indigent federal defendants was extended to or, in the words of that Court, "made obligatory upon the States by the Fourteenth Amendment." Plainly, had the Court concluded that appointment of counsel for an indigent criminal defendant was "a fundamental right, essential to a fair trial," it would have held that the Fourteenth Amendment requires appointment of counsel in a state court, just as the Sixth Amendment requires in a federal court....
We accept Betts v. Brady's assumption, based as it was on our prior cases, that a provision of the Bill of Rights which is "fundamental and essential to a fair trial" is made obligatory upon the States by the Fourteenth Amendment. We think the Court in Betts was wrong, however, in concluding that the Sixth Amendment's guarantee of counsel is not one of these fundamental rights. Ten years before Betts v. Brady, this Court, after full consideration of all the historical data examined in Betts, had unequivocally declared that "the right to aid of counsel is of this fundamental character." Powell v. Alabama (1932). While the Court at the close of its Powell opinion did by its language, as this Court frequently does, limit its holding to the particular facts and circumstances of that case, its conclusions about the fundamental nature of the right to counsel are unmistakable....
counsel is not a fundamental right, essential to a fair trial" -- the Court in Betts v. Brady made an abrupt break with its own well-constituted precedents. In returning to these old precedents, sounder we believe than the new, we but restore constitutional principles established to achieve a fair system of justice. Not only these precedents but also 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. 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. Similarly, there are a few defendants charged with crime, few indeed, who fail to hire the best lawyers they can get to prepare and present their defenses. That government hires lawyers to prosecute and defendants who have the money hire lawyers to defend are the strongest indications of the widespread belief that lawyers in criminal courts are necessities, not luxuries. The right of one charged with crime to counsel may not be deemed fundamental and essential to fair trials in some countries, but it is in ours. From the very beginning, our state and national constitutions and laws have laid great emphasis on procedural and substantive safeguards designed to assure fair trials before impartial tribunals in which every defendant stands equal before the law. This noble ideal cannot be realized if the poor man charged with crime has to face his accusers without a lawyer to assist him....
The Court in Betts v. Brady departed from the sound wisdom upon which the Court's holding in Powell v. Alabama rested. Florida, supported by two other States, has asked that Betts v. Brady be left intact. Twenty-two States, as friends of the Court, argue that Betts was "an anachronism when handed down" and that it should now be overruled. We agree.
The judgment is reversed and the case is remanded to the Supreme Court of Florida for further action not inconsistent with this opinion.
Source: 372 U.S. 335 (1963).
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