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Inspirational writing at its best
on April 1, 2017
Clarence Earl Gideon was arrested for a petty crime, and because he couldn’t afford one, asked for an attorney to represent him in court. His request was denied. He was convicted and sentenced to five years in the Florida State Prison. Using a pencil and prison letterhead, he appealed to the Supreme Court for a writ of certiorari. Arguing that the lower court had deprived him of his Sixth Amendment right to have an attorney for his defense and that he had been denied due process under the Fourteenth Amendment, Gideon told the Court that as a layman he was incapable of defending himself.
Gideon’s chance of finding a needle in a haystack was infinitely greater than having his case heard by the Supreme Court. But it was. Gideon v. Wainwright (1963) changed the whole course of American legal history. Gideon’s incredible story, and the story of how the Supreme Court chooses and decides cases, is the subject of this very readable book by Anthony Lewis. Lewis knows the ins and outs of the American judicial system. He was a New York Times reporter who covered the Supreme Court from 1957 to 1964. He also taught law at Harvard from 1974 to 1989.
The Supreme Court receives some 2500 appeals each term (or did so at the time of Gideon’s appeal) of which 150 are actually granted a hearing. “Review by the Supreme Court is in the interest of the law, its appropriate exposition and enforcement, not in the mere interest of the litigants,” the author quotes Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes. In other words, the Court accepted Gideon’s appeal not out of the goodness of its heart but to address a legal issue. The issue that interested the Court was whether or not criminal defendants tried in state court who were unable to afford an attorney, and not provided one by the state, were being denied their Constitutional rights. In federal court, defendants without means were provided legal counsel by court. Under federal law, it was their Constitutional right. But under state law? That was a different issue all together. The states were not bound by Bill of Rights guarantees. “Our Constitution created a system of dual governments, state and federal, each with its own laws,” writes the author. Tried in a state court, Gideon was not guaranteed the right to an attorney. Fortunately for him, issues of federal law sometimes arise in state courts, and therefore can be appealed, and this was one.
Twenty years earlier, in a similar case (Betts v. Brady, 1942), the Court ruled in favor of the state—an indigent criminal defendant did not have the right to an attorney. By 1962, when Gideon filed his appeal, the makeup of the court had changed significantly (more liberal/more activist) and decided to reexamine the merit’s of the Court’s prior decision. Having accepted Gideon’s appeal, the Court asked one of the top attorneys in the nation (future Supreme Court justice Abe Fortas) to represent Gideon. Working pro bono, Fortas put the expertise of his powerful Washington law firm to work on the case, with no stone left unturned.
The state of Florida, meanwhile, assigned a 26-year-old assistant attorney general named Bruce Robert Jacob to represent the state. He argued that defendants without means were perfectly capable of acting as their own attorney. Indeed, Gideon had done quite well for himself in court, in a losing case. Jacob also made an appeal to all 49 states to file friend-of-court briefs on behalf of Florida. There was one very big problem, however: 23 states favored a new standard of fairness on state criminal procedure. Only two states—Alabama and North Carolina—spoke up for Florida.
The Court’s ruling was unanimous. As with state capital offenses, defendants who could not afford an attorney now must be provided one by the state. Gideon’s conviction was overturned. He was assigned an attorney and his case was retried in a Florida court. This time, he won, and was released from prison.
Gideon v. Wainwright was one of three Supreme Court decisions to significantly alter criminal procedure so that it better protected the rights of the accused. The other two are Miranda v. Arizona (1966) and Mapp v. Ohio (1961). Conservative critics have accused the court in such cases as legislating rather adjudicating the law. Perhaps. But how much longer would it have taken Congress to pass such legislation, if ever?
Justice Walter Schaefer of Illinois has advanced “the relation of the United States to the rest of the world” today as one argument for national standards of criminal procedure. “The quality of a nation’s civilization can be largely measured by the method it uses in the enforcement of its criminal law.” Adds the author, “The Supreme Court is in a strategic position to give voice to national ideals.” Brilliant book.