Today in 1963: Supreme Court expands right to counsel

March 18, 2010

“You have the right to an attorney. If you cannot afford an attorney, one will be appointed to you.”

Clarence Earl GideonMost of us have heard the Miranda warning recited by TV cops so many times, we know it  by heart. But even though this particular right has its roots in the Constitution, it did not always apply to any defendant accused of a serious crime.

Clarence Earl Gideon learned this the hard way. In 1961, the indigent 51-year-old was accused of breaking into a Florida pool hall where he had worked from time to time and stealing money from the jukebox and cigarette machine – a felony offense at the time.

At his trial, Clarence Gideon told the judge that he was too poor to afford a lawyer and asked the court to provide one – a request that was politely denied.

“Mr. Gideon,” the judge said, “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.”

After being sentenced to five years, Gideon wrote a letter to the justices of the Supreme Court from the library of the Florida State Prison – and astonishingly, the Court agreed to review his case.

On March 18, 1963, the Supreme Court ruled in Gideon v. Wainwright that “in all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to have the assistance of counsel for his defense.” The Court’s decision effectively made the Sixth Amendment’s guarantee of counsel in criminal cases a fundamental right that, under the Fourteenth Amendment, could not be denied by the states.

This expanded right to counsel was one of several decisions by the Warren Court that extended new protections to criminal defendants. Another was the 1966 Miranda v. Arizona decision, which led to the practice of “Mirandizing” suspects – and inspiring some of the most familiar lines in TV history.