This article was originally published in the print edition of the ABA Journal.
“You have the right to an attorney. If you cannot afford an attorney, one will be provided to you.”
You don’t have to have attended law school to know these words. They are repeated in nearly every police drama on television and in the movies.
Most Americans believe that access to an attorney during criminal proceedings is a foundational right in our country. But the right to have an attorney provided by the government has not always existed. Until 60 years ago, indigent defendants who could not afford an attorney had to defend themselves in court.
But on March 18, 1963, that all changed. The U.S. Supreme Court rendered one of its most famous decisions in the case of Gideon v. Wainwright.
Clarence Earl Gideon was a drifter who in 1961 was arrested and charged with breaking and entering after an alleged theft at a pool hall in Florida. Gideon asked the court for an attorney since he had no money. However, Gideon’s request was denied because at the time, the government was required to provide representation only to indigent defendants in capital cases.
Gideon was convicted and received five years in prison, the maximum sentence. After exhausting his appeals, he drafted a handwritten note on prison stationery to the U.S. Supreme Court, which took his case and ruled unanimously that the Sixth Amendment guaranteed Gideon and all others facing serious criminal charges the right to a lawyer, whether they could afford to hire one or not. States were bound by the decision under the Fourteenth Amendment. On retrial with an attorney, Gideon was acquitted of all charges.