Your Civil+ free trial is ending soon
Click Free Trial in the task bar for more info.
Your Civil+ free trial is active
The subscription will auto-renew on {{insert end date}}. To manage your subscription, visit the Customer Portal.

Working on it...

We're working on the mobile experience for this page right now.

Thank you for your patience!

- Civil Team

Back to Home
Supreme Court Cases

Gideon v. Wainwright

If you cannot afford a lawyer, one will be appointed for you. Paramount to that case was Gideon v. Wainwright, establishing the right to counsel.


The Case in Brief

History. Throughout the 50s and 60s, the Supreme Court overturned many prior cases involving criminal defense in an era known as the Warren Court. This era produced the right to confront witnesses in state court and the right to remain silent by pleading the Fifth. Betts v. Brady was a landmark decision that said a right to a lawyer was only for federal cases.

Case Facts. Clarence Gideon broke into a poolroom in Florida and was charged with breaking and entering. The charge quickly escalated into a felony, but when the trial started, Gideon was denied an attorney because Florida law only provided attorneys for capital cases.

Majority Opinion. The right of an individual who cannot afford a lawyer to be given a lawyer is a fundamental right essential to a fair trial. Gideon’s trial and conviction without a lawyer violated the Fourteenth Amendment, which guarantees the Sixth Amendment.

Results. The Supreme Court overruled Betts v. Brady, and Gideon v. Wainwright embedded the Sixth Amendment right to counsel for all accused of a crime. States must now provide a lawyer if you cannot afford one.


Betts v. Brady. Smith Betts was indicted for robbery in the Circuit Court of Carroll County in Maryland. At his trial, Betts told the judge that he was too poor to afford a lawyer and asked the court to provide one. The judge denied Betts’ request on the grounds that counsel is granted only for cases of rape and murder. The county judge found Betts guilty and sentenced him to eight years.

Landmark Supreme Court Case: Betts v. Brady (1942)
(Killing the Breeze)

While serving his sentence, Betts filed a habeas corpus petition. Betts argued that the court’s denial of counsel violated his rights to due process under the 14th Amendment. The U.S. Supreme Court looked to determine whether the petitioner had a constitutional claim that the Sixth Amendment guarantee of counsel should be incorporated into states via the 14th Amendment’s Due Process Clause.

The Court found the right to counsel is guaranteed by the federal government, but state by state, it’s the choice of voters to decide with their representatives. The Court argued that because different states had conflicting laws on appointing lawyers, a fundamental right to an attorney did not exist. 

The Warren Court. The Warren Court was the period from 1953 to 1969 when Earl Warren served as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. The Warren Court is remembered as one of the most impactful periods in American constitutional law. 

The Warren Court: Its Impact and Importance

As Chief Justice, Warren used political waves to guide the Court toward often controversial decisions. The Warren Court is marked by expansions of civil rights, civil liberties, and powers of the federal government. Some of the main decisions of the Warren Court were the ending of racial segregation in U.S. public schools, expanding the constitutional rights of defendants in cases like Gideon v. Wainwright, and outlawing state-sponsored prayer in public schools.

Case Facts

Clarence Gideon had only an eighth-grade education after running away from home when he was young. He spent much of his early adult life as a drifter, and when he was older, he was charged with breaking and entering with the intent to commit a misdemeanor, which is a felony under Florida law.  

At trial, Gideon appeared in court without an attorney. He asked the judge to appoint counsel for him because he could not afford an attorney, but the trial judge denied Gideon’s request because Florida law only permitted the appointment of counsel for poor defendants charged with capital offenses. 

At trial, Gideon represented himself — poorly. Despite his efforts, the jury found Gideon guilty, and he was sentenced to five years.

Gideon sought relief from his conviction by filing a petition for a writ of habeas corpus. In his petition, Gideon challenged his conviction and sentence on the ground that the trial judge’s refusal to appoint counsel violated Gideon’s constitutional rights. 

The Court agreed to hear the case to resolve the question of whether the right to counsel guaranteed under the Sixth Amendment of the Constitution applies to defendants in state court.

Majority Opinion

The Court held that the Sixth Amendment’s guarantee of counsel is a fundamental right essential to a fair trial guaranteed even at the state level by the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

Since trials are meant to be adversarial — that is, one side against the other — a poor person who cannot afford a lawyer is at a disadvantage, making it an unfair trial..

An impartial trial where everyone is equal before the law cannot exist if a poor man charged with a crime has to face his accusers without a lawyer to assist him.

Concurring Opinion

The right to an attorney existed in federal cases and capital cases. The Court’s decision erases an imaginary distinction that had no basis in logic and guarantees the right to an attorney.

The Constitution makes no distinction between capital and noncapital cases. Therefore, the distinction is unconstitutional.

Related Cases

Argersinger v. Hamlin (1972)

(Justice Speaks Institute)

Jon Argersinger — similar to Gideon — was a regular citizen unqualified to practice law. He was charged in the state of Florida with carrying a concealed weapon in 1971. The charge carried with it a maximum penalty of six months in jail and a $1,000 fine, but during the trial, Argersinger was not represented by an attorney. He was convicted and sentenced to serve ninety days in jail, but in the Supreme Court case of Argersinger v. Hamlin, the Court found in a unanimous decision that he required a lawyer. The Court cited Gideon v. Wainwright when making its decision.

Discussion Questions

  1. How has the right to an attorney influenced pop culture? (e.g. TV shows)
  2. Could there be a case where someone does not need an attorney?
  3. Why might the state not be able to provide an attorney?

FRQ Practice

FRQ #1

In 1941, Smith Betts was arrested for robbery in the state of Maryland. Unable to afford a lawyer, he was denied a public defender by a judge and forced to represent himself. He was found guilty and given an eight-year sentence.

In the ensuing case, Betts v. Brady (1942), the Supreme Court ruled against Mr. Betts, who claimed his constitutional right to a fair trial was denied. In a 6-3 decision, the Court held that the right to counsel applied to only criminal cases in federal courts and that he did not have a right to counsel in a state court, except in death penalty cases. 

Justice Black, in his dissenting opinion, reasoned, “This can be determined by a resolution of a narrower question: whether, in view of the nature of the offense and the circumstance of his trial and conviction, this petitioner was denied the procedural protection which is his right under the federal Constitution. I think he was.”

  1. Identify the constitutional amendment in the Bill of Rights that is common to both Gideon v. Wainwright (1963) and Betts v. Brady (1942).
  2. Explain how the decision in Gideon v. Wainwright related to the reasoning in Justice Black’s dissenting opinion in Betts v. Brady.

Explain how the decision in Betts v. Brady demonstrates the principle of federalism.

Important Terms

Habeas Corpus. A document that a person may seek from a court to obtain immediate release from unlawful imprisonment. This can happen when the imprisonment has occurred through a means that violated the person’s constitutional rights.

Capital Offense. A capital offense is any crime where the accused could face execution as a punishment.

Miranda Rights. The legal rights of an arrested person to have an attorney and to refuse to answer questions.

Counsel. Refers to the services provided by a person who studies or practices law. Used interchangeably with attorney or lawyer, it also describes someone who gives legal advice or represents clients in court proceedings.

Current Events

Explore how the past impacts current events today
No items found.