Monday, March 27, 2023

Gideon at 60: SCOTUS ruling reinforces need for competent public criminal defense

Matthew T. Mangino
Pennsylvania Capital-Star
March 26, 2023

Last week marked the 60th Anniversary of the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision Gideon v. Wainwright. In Gideon, the high court unanimously ruled that state courts are required to provide legal counsel for those defendants accused of a crime who cannot afford a lawyer. 

A landmark decision is a court case that is studied because it has historical and legal significance.  The most significant cases are those that alter the legal landscape and have a lasting effect on the application of American jurisprudence.

Did the Gideon decision alter the legal landscape more than six decades ago? 

The Sixth Amendment provides, “In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right . . . to have the assistance of counsel for his defense.”

In 1932, the U.S. Supreme Court decided Powell v. Alabama. The court ruled that the U.S. Constitution requires defendants in capital cases, those facing the death penalty, be given access to counsel. 

Ten years later in Betts v. Brady, the court refused to extend the right to counsel to criminal charges other that capital murder. In Betts, it was held that a refusal to appoint counsel for an indigent defendant charged with a felony did not violate the U.S. Constitution.

Then came Clarence Earl Gideon, a 51-year-old drifter and petty-thief.  He was charged with breaking and entering in Florida.  The charge was a felony and when Gideon first appeared before the court he was without funds, without counsel and he asked the court to appoint him a lawyer.

The judge apologized to Gideon and said that Florida law only provides for counsel in capital cases. Gideon replied, “The United States Supreme Court says I am entitled to be represented by counsel.”

Gideon represented himself, was convicted and appealed to the Florida Supreme Court. His appeal was denied and his case made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court.  The U.S. Supreme Court appointed a very capable attorney, Abe Fortas to represent Gideon.  Fortas would one day take a seat on the U.S. Supreme Court.

Fortas told the court that the federal government already recognized that the Sixth Amendment required the appointment of counsel for indigent defendants facing felony charges. 

He also pointed out that 37 states provided for the appointment of counsel by statute, administrative rule or court decision.  Eight states provided counsel as a matter of practice. In an unprecedented act of support for the rights of those accused of a crime, twenty-two state attorneys general joined Gideon in urging the court to establish an absolute constitutional right to counsel in criminal cases. 

Only five states — Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, North Carolina and South Carolina — did not provide counsel for indigent defendants.  

Justice George Sutherland wrote 30 years before Gideon, “Even the intelligent and educated layman has small and sometimes no skill in the science of law.”  Fortas argued in Gideon, “You cannot have a fair trial without counsel.”  

By modern standards, Justice Hugo Black’s opinion in Gideon was not very long — only about 2,500 words —  but what he said was compelling:  

“[R]eason 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.”

Sixty years after Gideon the focus has evolved from merely the right to counsel — to the right to effective representation.  That representation has turned from ensuring a fair trial to ensuring effective assistance on matters such as plea bargaining and the collateral consequences of sentencing. 

Today that job is literally overwhelming. Nearly half of all Americans have a loved one who is currently or formerly incarcerated.

More than 5 million people are under supervision by the criminal legal system. Nearly 2 million people, are living in jails and prisons, a 500% increase since 1973, April Frazier Camara, president of the National Legal Aid & Defenders Association, and colleagues, recently wrote in the USA Today.

America locks up more people for long periods of time than any other nation on earth.

Now, more than ever, this country needs competent public criminal defense. A body of lawyers not influenced by the resources of a particular county or state—or the activism of any court or legislative body.

If the right to counsel in America’s courtrooms is going to be more than mere lip service, money, time and resources must be invested in the defense of indigents accused of a crime. Their rights are our rights—a buffer between rogues, zealots, and demagogues.  

Matthew T. Mangino is of counsel with Luxenberg, Garbett, Kelly and George. P.C. and the former district attorney of Lawrence County, Pa.   He is the author of The Executioner’s Toll. You can follow him on twitter @MatthewTMangino or contact him at His work appears frequently on the Capital-Star’s Commentary Page.  

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