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Clarence Gideon was a homeless drifter accused of breaking into a pool hall in Panama City, Fla., but couldn’t afford a lawyer to represent him.
He insisted he had that right under the Constitution, even after the judge said no, and even after he was convicted, and even as he served his five-year prison sentence. His insistence would lead to a landmark Supreme Court decision 50 years ago next year that University of Iowa law professor Jim Tomkovicz says was a major step forward in the evolution of indigent criminal defendants’ opportunities to obtain fair trials.
“By all estimations, Gideon was a significant development in the history of the right to the assistance of counsel,” says Tomkovicz, a criminal procedure expert at the College of Law who has written extensively about the right to counsel and is planning a symposium next fall at the College of Law assessing right-to–counsel developments in the last 50 years. “Its legal and practical ramifications continue to affect the administration of criminal justice today.”
After he’d been charged with the Panama City break-in in 1961, Gideon told the judge he was too poor to afford his own attorney and requested that the court appoint one for him. He cited a 1938 Supreme Court ruling that the Sixth Amendment requires all criminal defendants be represented by an attorney, even those who can’t afford one. But that ruling applied only to federal courts, not state courts, and since Florida law required court appointed legal representation only for indigent defendants accused of capital crimes, the judge refused Gideon’s request.
After his conviction, Gideon began an appeals process that led to oral arguments at the U.S. Supreme Court on January 15, 1963. In March, the Court ruled in Gideon’s favor, concluding that the assistance of counsel is fundamental and essential to a fair trial, that lawyers are necessities, not luxuries, and that the Fourteenth Amendment Due Process Clause includes a guarantee of appointed representation for state defendants who are financially unable to retain assistance.
Gideon was re-tried, this time with the assistance of counsel, and acquitted. But the impact of the decision went far beyond Clarence Gideon’s freedom. Tomkovicz says the case announced a sweeping, categorical entitlement for all defendants. As a result, states had to devise ways—such as public defender systems—that would ensure the availability of counsel for all indigents who need legal representation.
The Gideon decision was one of a number of landmark rulings by the Supreme Court under the leadership of Chief Justice Earl Warren. Miranda v. Arizona (1966), for instance, restricts law enforcement’s efforts to interrogate suspects, and Mapp v. Ohio (1961) held that states may not introduce evidence acquired by means of unreasonable searches and seizures.
Tomkovicz says these decisions all expanded constitutional protections for those suspected and accused of crimes. But unlike Miranda and Mapp, which Tomkovicz says have been significantly eroded by subsequent Supreme Court decisions, the central holding of Gideon has remained intact. In the 1970sthe Court did refuse to extend the constitutional entitlement to appointed assistance to those accused of misdemeanors—unless their trials result in jail sentences—but it has maintained Gideon’s categorical rule for felony prosecutions.
Tomkovicz says some scholars argue that the promise of Gideon has not been fully realized. Public defender systems are frequently overburdened, and Tomkovicz says there are never enough public funds to address all needs.
“Criminal defendants never have been, and never will be, a favored or sympathetic class,” he says. “In the competition for public financing, their needs are unlikely to be high on the list of priorities. In tough economic times, with even fewer dollars available, it is not surprising that jurisdictions fail to fund indigent defense systems adequately.”
Tomkovicz believes that the intent and spirit of the Gideon decision are still widely respected by the legal community and the general public, to the point where many states provide a broader right to appointed counsel for misdemeanor defendants than the Constitution requires.
“People realize that untrained, inexperienced laypersons are unable to handle the complexities and intricacies involved in defending against serious criminal accusations,” he says. “They agree that it is fundamentally unfair to require those too poor to retain counsel to fend for themselves in court.”
The Gideon decision also scored public relations points when the case was chronicled in Gideon’s Trumpet, an award-winning bestselling book by New York Times reporter Anthony Lewis that was later turned into a movie starring the beloved Henry Fonda as Clarence Gideon. The details of next fall’s symposium are being worked out, but Tomkovicz says he hopes to screen the film during the event.