Gideon v. Wainwright (1963)

Supreme Court of the United States

Clarence Earl Gideon v. Louie L. Wainwright 

Decided March 18, 1963 – 372 U.S. 335


Mr. Justice BLACK delivered the opinion of the Court.

Petitioner was charged in a Florida state court with having broken and entered a poolroom with intent to commit a misdemeanor. This offense is a felony under Florida law. Appearing in court without funds and without a lawyer, petitioner asked the court to appoint counsel for him, whereupon the following colloquy took place:

“The COURT: Mr. Gideon, 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. I am sorry, but I will have to deny your request to appoint Counsel to defend you in this case.

“The DEFENDANT: The United States Supreme Court says I am entitled to be represented by Counsel.”

Put to trial before a jury, Gideon conducted his defense about as well as could be expected from a layman. He made an opening statement to the jury, cross-examined the State’s witnesses, presented witnesses in his own defense, declined to testify himself, and made a short argument “emphasizing his innocence to the charge contained in the Information filed in this case.” The jury returned a verdict of guilty, and petitioner was sentenced to serve five years in the state prison. Later, petitioner filed in the Florida Supreme Court this habeas corpus petition attacking his conviction and sentence on the ground that the trial court’s refusal to appoint counsel for him denied him rights “guaranteed by the Constitution and the Bill of Rights by the United States Government.” Treating the petition for habeas corpus as properly before it, the State Supreme Court, “upon consideration thereof” but without an opinion, denied all relief. [T]he problem of a defendant’s federal constitutional right to counsel in a state court has been a continuing source of controversy and litigation in both state and federal courts. To give this problem another review here, we granted certiorari. Since Gideon was proceeding in forma pauperis, we appointed counsel to represent him and requested both sides to discuss in their briefs and oral arguments the following: “Should this Court’s holding in Betts v. Brady be reconsidered?”


The facts upon which Betts claimed that he had been unconstitutionally denied the right to have counsel appointed to assist him are strikingly like the facts upon which Gideon here bases his federal constitutional claim. Betts was indicted for robbery in a Maryland state court. On arraignment, he told the trial judge of his lack of funds to hire a lawyer and asked the court to appoint one for him. Betts was advised that it was not the practice in that county to appoint counsel for indigent defendants except in murder and rape cases. He then pleaded not guilty, had witnesses summoned, cross-examined the State’s witnesses, examined his own, and chose not to testify himself. He was found guilty by the judge, sitting without a jury, and sentenced to eight years in prison. Like Gideon, Betts sought release by habeas corpus, alleging that he had been denied the right to assistance of counsel in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment. Betts was denied any relief, and on review this Court affirmed. It was held that a refusal to appoint counsel for an indigent defendant charged with a felony did not necessarily violate the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, which for reasons given the Court deemed to be the only applicable federal constitutional provision. 

Treating due process as “a concept less rigid and more fluid than those envisaged in other specific and particular provisions of the Bill of Rights,” the Court held that refusal to appoint counsel under the particular facts and circumstances in the Betts case was not so “offensive to the common and fundamental ideas of fairness” as to amount to a denial of due process. Since the facts and circumstances of the two cases are so nearly indistinguishable, we think the Betts v. Brady holding if left standing would require us to reject Gideon’s claim that the Constitution guarantees him the assistance of counsel. Upon full reconsideration we conclude that Betts v. Brady should be overruled.


The Sixth Amendment provides, “In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right … to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defence.” We have construed this to mean that in federal courts counsel must be provided for defendants unable to employ counsel unless the right is competently and intelligently waived. Betts argued that this right is extended to indigent defendants in state courts by the Fourteenth Amendment. In response the Court stated that, while the Sixth Amendment laid down “no rule for the conduct of the states, the question recurs whether the constraint laid by the amendment upon the national courts expresses a rule so fundamental and essential to a fair trial, and so, to due process of law, that it is made obligatory upon the states by the Fourteenth Amendment.” [T]he Court [in Betts] concluded that “appointment of counsel is not a fundamental right, essential to a fair trial.” It was for this reason the Betts Court refused to accept the contention that the Sixth Amendment’s guarantee of counsel for indigent federal defendants was extended to or, in the words of that Court, “made obligatory upon the states by the Fourteenth Amendment.” Plainly, had the Court concluded that appointment of counsel for an indigent criminal defendant was “a fundamental right, essential to a fair trial,” it would have held that the Fourteenth Amendment requires appointment of counsel in a state court, just as the Sixth Amendment requires in a federal court.

We think the Court in Betts had ample precedent for acknowledging that those guarantees of the Bill of Rights which are fundamental safeguards of liberty immune from federal abridgment are equally protected against state invasion by the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. In many cases [], this Court has looked to the fundamental nature of original Bill of Rights guarantees to decide whether the Fourteenth Amendment makes them obligatory on the States. Explicitly recognized to be of this “fundamental nature” and therefore made immune from state invasion by the Fourteenth, or some part of it, are the First Amendment’s freedoms of speech, press, religion, assembly, association, and petition for redress of grievances. For the same reason, though not always in precisely the same terminology, the Court has made obligatory on the States the Fifth Amendment’s command that private property shall not be taken for public use without just compensation, the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition of unreasonable searches and seizures, and the Eighth’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment. 

We accept Betts v. Brady’s assumption, based as it was on our prior cases, that a provision of the Bill of Rights which is “fundamental and essential to a fair trial” is made obligatory upon the States by the Fourteenth Amendment. We think the Court in Betts was wrong, however, in concluding that the Sixth Amendment’s guarantee of counsel is not one of these fundamental rights. Ten years before Betts v. Brady, this Court, after full consideration of all the historical data examined in Betts, had unequivocally declared that “the right to the aid of counsel is of this fundamental character.” 

The fact is that in deciding as it did—that “appointment of counsel is not a fundamental right, essential to a fair trial”—the Court in Betts v. Brady made an abrupt break with its own well-considered precedents. In returning to these old precedents, sounder we believe than the new, we but restore constitutional principles established to achieve a fair system of justice. Not only these precedents but also reason and reflection require us to recognize that in our adversary system of criminal justice, any person hauled into court, who is too poor to hire a lawyer, cannot be assured a fair trial unless counsel is provided for him. This seems to us to be an obvious truth. Governments, both state and federal, quite properly spend vast sums of money to establish machinery to try defendants accused of crime. Lawyers to prosecute are everywhere deemed essential to protect the public’s interest in an orderly society. Similarly, there are few defendants charged with crime, few indeed, who fail to hire the best lawyers they can get to prepare and present their defenses. That government hires lawyers to prosecute and defendants who have the money hire lawyers to defend are the strongest indications of the wide-spread belief that lawyers in criminal courts are necessities, not luxuries. The right of one charged with crime to counsel may not be deemed fundamental and essential to fair trials in some countries, but it is in ours. From the very beginning, our state and national constitutions and laws have laid great emphasis on procedural and substantive safeguards designed to assure fair trials before impartial tribunals in which every defendant stands equal before the law. This noble ideal cannot be realized if the poor man charged with crime has to face his accusers without a lawyer to assist him. A defendant’s need for a lawyer is nowhere better stated than in the moving words of Mr. Justice Sutherland in Powell v. Alabama:

“The right to be heard would be, in many cases, of little avail if it did not comprehend the right to be heard by counsel. Even the intelligent and educated layman has small and sometimes no skill in the science of law. If charged with crime, he is incapable, generally, of determining for himself whether the indictment is good or bad. He is unfamiliar with the rules of evidence. Left without the aid of counsel he may be put on trial without a proper charge, and convicted upon incompetent evidence, or evidence irrelevant to the issue or otherwise inadmissible. He lacks both the skill and knowledge adequately to prepare his defense, even though he have a perfect one. He requires the guiding hand of counsel at every step in the proceedings against him. Without it, though he be not guilty, he faces the danger of conviction because he does not know how to establish his innocence.” 

The Court in Betts v. Brady departed from the sound wisdom upon which the Court’s holding in Powell v. Alabama rested. Florida, supported by two other States, has asked that Betts v. Brady be left intact. Twenty-two States, as friends of the Court, argue that Betts was “an anachronism when handed down” and that it should now be overruled. We agree.

The judgment is reversed and the cause is remanded to the Supreme Court of Florida for further action not inconsistent with this opinion. 

Notes, Comments, and Questions 

After the Court decided Gideon v. Wainwright, the state of Florida retried Gideon. He was represented by counsel at his second trial and was acquitted.

In Argersinger v. Hamlin, 407 U.S. 25 (1972), the Court extended the rule of Gideon to all cases in which a defendant faces possible imprisonment, rejecting an argument it should be limited to cases in which a substantial prison sentence was possible. “The requirement of counsel may well be necessary for a fair trial even in a petty offense prosecution. We are by no means convinced that legal and constitutional questions involved in a case that actually leads to imprisonment even for a brief period are any less complex than when a person can be sent off for six months or more.” Id. at 33.91

Students should note that because the Assistance of Counsel Clause applies only to “criminal prosecutions,” the holding of Gideon does not provide a right to appointed counsel in all serious cases, only criminal cases. For example, a person at risk of deportation in immigration court has no right to counsel under Gideon, nor does a housing court litigant at risk of eviction, nor does a civil defendant sued for millions of dollars.

Students should also note that the right to trial by jury exists only if the maximum potential sentence exceeds six months. If the maximum is exactly six months or less, then the prosecutor can have a bench trial even if defendant objects. See Duncan v. Louisiana, 391 U.S. 145 (1968); see also Baldwin v. New York, 399 U.S. 66 (1970). If the statutory maximum is, say, eight months, then prosecutor can say she won’t seek a sentence in excess of six months to avoid dealing with a jury. If the defendant is charged with two counts, and each count has a maximum sentence of four months, that does not exceed six months for purposes of this rule. The test is whether any offense has a maximum possible sentence above six months.  (Also, in actual practice, someone convicted on two counts, each with a maximum sentence of four months, usually serves four months rather than eight months. Sentences for multiple counts usually run concurrently instead of consecutively, absent an unusual statute.)

Because the “assistance of counsel” would have little value if the defendant’s lawyer literally arrived only for the trial and provided help at no other time, the Court has held that defendants have the right to counsel not only at trial but also at other “critical stages” of the prosecution. These “critical stages” include: post-indictment line-ups (see United States v. Wade, chapter 38), preliminary hearings (see Coleman v. Alabama, 399 U.S. 1 (1970)), post-indictment interrogations (see Massiah, chapter 29), and arraignments (see Hamilton v. Alabama, 368 U.S. 52 (1961)). Recall also Rothgery v. Gillespie County (discussed in Chapter 29), in which the Court held that the right to counsel attaches at a defendant’s first presentation before judicial officer, even if no lawyer is there for the prosecution.

By contrast, a defendant has no right to government-funded counsel after the conclusion of initial (direct) appeals.  Accordingly, for certiorari petitions, habeas corpus petitions, and similar efforts, the defendant must pay a lawyer, find pro bono counsel, or proceed pro se

Since the Court decided Gideon, states have created systems for the provision of counsel to indigent criminal defendants. The quality of these systems varies tremendously from state to state. Common issues confronted by states include the quality of appointed counsel—especially in complicated cases, and most especially in capital cases—as well as funding to pay lawyers, experts, and other costs. States also diverge in their definitions of who qualifies as sufficiently indigent for appointed counsel. For a review of the state of indigent defense in the states, see the articles collected in the Summer 2010 symposium issue of the Missouri Law Review, entitled “Broke and Broken: Can We Fix Our State Indigent Defense System?” Topics include ethical duties lawyers owe to indigent clients, state constitutional challenges to inadequate indigent defense systems, and ethical issues provided by excessive caseloads. One recent example of a state system in crisis occurred in 2016, when the lead public defender in Missouri attempted to assign a criminal case to the state’s governor, claiming that grievous underfunding justified the unusual move.92  


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