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The Legacy of Gideon v. Wainwright

The Legacy of Gideon v. Wainwright

“If an obscure Florida convict named Clarence Earl Gideon had not sat down in his prison cell with a pencil and paper to write a letter to the Supreme Court, and if the Court had not taken the trouble to look for merit in that one crude petition ... the vast machinery of American law would have gone on functioning undisturbed. But Gideon did write that letter, the Court did look into his case ... and the whole course of American legal history has been changed.”

Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy
Speech Before the New England Conference on the
Defense of Indigent Persons Accused of Crime
November 1, 1963

On March 18, 1963, the U.S. Supreme Court issued its decision in Gideon v. Wainwright, unanimously holding that defendants facing serious criminal charges have a right to counsel at state expense if they cannot afford one.  The time that has passed since Gideon have demonstrated that effective legal assistance for all persons charged with crimes is critical to safeguarding justice and fairness in the criminal process.  On the 50th anniversary of Gideon, the Justice Department reaffirmed its commitment to supporting the highest standards in criminal defense.


Clarence Gideon was accused of a felony in Panama City, Florida and convicted after the trial judge denied Gideon’s request to have counsel appointed to represent him.  The Supreme Court agreed to hear Gideon’s case and granted him a new trial, ruling that legal assistance is “fundamental and essential to a fair trial” and that due process requires states to provide a lawyer for any indigent person being prosecuted for a serious crime.  After being retried with the help of a local attorney, who had the time and skill to investigate his case and conduct a competent defense, Gideon was acquitted of all charges.

The right to appointed counsel has been extended to misdemeanor and juvenile proceedings.  Today, states and localities make use of a variety of systems to provide indigent defense, from state- and county-based public defenders, to appointment systems that reimburse private attorneys who represent indigent defendants.

Despite the significant progress that has been made over 50 years after the decision, the promise of Gideon remains unfulfilled.  The quality of criminal defense services varies widely across states and localities.  Many defenders struggle under excessive caseloads and lack adequate funding and independence, making it impossible for them to meet their legal and ethical obligations to represent their clients effectively.  The problems of mental illness and juveniles in our criminal justice system pose special difficulties for achieving fairness and justice.  

As Attorney General Eric Holder has stated, “our criminal justice system, and our faith in it, depends on effective representation on both sides.”  The Justice Department is providing a number of tools and resources to help establish effective indigent defense systems across the nation.  In 2010 the Department also launched the Office for Access to Justice — establishing a new, permanent office focused on enhancing access to criminal and civil legal services for those who cannot afford them. 

The Supreme’s Court recognition in Gideon that “lawyers in criminal courts are necessities, not luxuries,” and its guarantee of the right to counsel in the state criminal process, has had a profound impact on the operation and aspirations of the American criminal justice system.  The Justice Department is committed to working to ensure that the goals and vision of Gideon are fully, and finally, realized.



Updated October 24, 2018