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Law school conference looks at 50 years of Gideon v. Wainwright

Americans who can’t afford a defense attorney have had the right to state-appointed defense for 50 years now, and a conference at the University of Iowa College of Law this fall will look at how that right has changed during that time.

The conference, “Fifty Years of Gideon,” organized and sponsored by the Iowa Law Review, will look at how the right to legal assistance has evolved since the U.S. Supreme Court handed down its landmark Gideon v. Wainwright decision. The conference will be held Friday, Oct. 18, at the Boyd Law Building with top right-to-counsel scholars from across the country analyzing how the right has been modified and how governments have implement it.

“By all estimations, Gideon was a significant development in the history of the right to the assistance of counsel,” says Jim Tomkovicz, a UI law professor and criminal procedure expert who conceived of and initiated the symposium. “Its legal and practical ramifications continue to affect the administration of criminal justice today.”

The Gideon decision began when Clarence Gideon, a homeless drifter, was 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, and after his conviction began an appeals process. The Supreme Court ruled in his favor in March 1963, 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 retried, this time with the assistance of counsel, and was 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.

Today, the central holding of Gideon remains intact. The Supreme Court has refused to extend the constitutional entitlement to appointed assistance to those accused of misdemeanors when convictions do not result in actual losses of liberty—i.e., sentences to time in jail. It has, however, maintained Gideon’s categorical rule for felony prosecutions.

Tomkovicz believes that the ambition and spirit of the Gideon decision are still widely respected by the legal community and the general public. In fact, 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,” Tomkovicz says. “They agree that it is fundamentally unfair and inequitable to require those too poor to retain counsel to fend for themselves in court.”

Individuals with disabilities are encouraged to attend all UI-sponsored events. If you are a person with a disability who requires an accommodation in order to participate in this conference, contact the Iowa Law Review in advance at 319-335-9054.


Tom Snee, University Communication and Marketing, office: 319-384-0010; cell: 319-541-8434


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