Published on: Friday, March 18, 2022

Friday marks the 59th anniversary of the landmark Supreme Court decision in which the justices unanimously ruled that defendants facing substantial jail time deserved legal representation in state courts, even if they could not afford to pay for counsel.

The ruling came in the case of Clarence Earl Gideon, a drifter convicted of breaking and entering after he was forced to defend himself. His handwritten appeal made it to the high court, and the decision in his favor became a rallying cry for the idea of equal justice.

On June 3, 1961, five dollars in change and a few bottles of beer and soda were stolen from the Pool Room, a pool hall and beer bar in Florida. The owner also alleged that $50 was taken from the jukebox. Clarence Earl Gideon was arrested and charged with breaking and entering and larceny.

Mr. Gideon argued his case to the jury without the help of a lawyer because he could not afford one. The jury convicted him, and he was sentenced to serve five years in prison, the maximum sentence. From his jail cell, Mr. Gideon wrote a letter to the Supreme Court asking the justices to review his case.

On March 18, 1963, the United States Supreme Court ruled that the Sixth Amendment guaranteed that Mr. Gideon and all others facing serious criminal charges have the right to a lawyer, whether or not they can afford to hire one. On re-trial with an attorney, Mr. Gideon was acquitted of all charges.

The ground-breaking decision in Gideon v. Wainwright inspired the creation of public defense agencies across the country.