Gideon v. Wainwright: Why is it important?

Gideon v. Wainwright: Why is it important?

If you are arrested and face criminal charges, it is your right to have an attorney represent you. But what if you cannot afford legal representation? Read on to find out more about how one Supreme Court case changed how defendants’ rights are upheld.

Background and Supreme Court case

In 1963, the Supreme Court heard the case of Clarence Earl Gideon, who had been convicted of breaking and entering a Florida pool hall with the intent to commit a misdemeanor – considered a felony under Florida law. Gideon ended up representing himself during trial because he could not afford an attorney. He asked the judge to appoint counsel for him, but at the time, Florida law only permitted appointment of counsel for those accused of committing capital offenses.

A jury found Gideon guilty and he was sentenced to five years behind bars. He then filed a petition for writ of habeas corpus (a court order demanding that an imprisoned person be delivered to the court with a valid reason explaining their detention) with the Florida Supreme Court challenging his conviction and sentence. He argued that the judge’s refusal to appoint him counsel for trial violated his Constitutional rights.

The Florida Supreme Court denied his petition, so Gideon filed a petition with the Supreme Court of the United States, which heard his case and agreed that he had not been given a fair trial. The Supreme Court overturned his conviction and voted unanimously in favor of Gideon, saying the right to counsel is “fundamental” and “in our…system of justice, any person… too poor to hire a lawyer, cannot be assured a fair trial unless counsel is provided for him…lawyers in criminal courts are necessities, not luxuries.”

The Supreme Court also granted Gideon a new trial, and with the help of a local attorney, he was acquitted of all charges.


Before the Supreme Court heard Gideon’s case, defendants who could not afford counsel were not always provided with an attorney by the state. Thanks to Gideon’s persistence and his time spent studying law behind bars, the right to appointed counsel was extended to misdemeanor and juvenile proceedings. All defendants are now, under the Sixth Amendment, afforded the right to counsel paid for by the state if they themselves cannot afford the cost.

States and localities today make available a variety of systems for defendants to obtain legal representation, including state and county-based public defenders’ offices or appointment systems that reimburse private attorneys for representing those who cannot afford them.

For example, you may have heard of New York City based organizations like The Legal Aid Society, The Bronx Defenders, Queens Defenders, and others. These are all services that defendants can utilize if they cannot otherwise afford an attorney.

While this is an improvement, many public defenders lack adequate funding and face immense caseloads, making it close to impossible for them to meet their clients’ needs and ensure fair legal proceedings.