Published on: Thursday, March 16, 2023

Clarence Earl Gideon, a Florida drifter who spent time in and out of prisons for nonviolent crimes, was an unlikely individual to help redefine a criminal defendant’s right to counsel 60 years ago in the Supreme Court case Gideon v. Wainwright (article available here).

After being accused of committing felony breaking and entering of a pool hall, the indigent Gideon petitioned the Florida state court to provide him with an attorney free of charge. The judge denied his request, and despite Gideon’s attempt to represent himself, the jury ultimately found him guilty.

From prison, Gideon wrote a letter to the U.S. Supreme Court, which heard his case and decided that indigent defendants are entitled to counsel in state criminal trials. Gideon was retried in Florida state court – this time with an appointed lawyer – and found not guilty.

In addition to its impact on state courts, Gideon opened a period of intense activity to ensure competent counsel for federal defendants. In 1964, a year after the Gideon ruling, Congress passed the Criminal Justice Act (CJA), which provides funding for court-appointed counsel in federal cases. Today, nearly 90 percent of federal criminal defendants are aided by lawyers, investigators and experts paid for under the Criminal Justice Act.