Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Clarence Gideon Story

The Ruling

Gideon, Fortas, Jacob and scores of other interested legal observers waited two months for the ruling.

Following custom, the justices held a private vote on the appeal on Friday of the week they listened to the oral arguments. Chief Justice Warren, who was in the majority, had the option of writing the opinion himself or passing the assignment on to an associate justice, often a senior member in a case considered significant.

He selected Justice Hugo Black to author the Gideon vs. Wainwright decision — and with good reason.

Justice Hugo Black
Justice Hugo Black

Black, 77, was a native Alabaman appointed to the court in 1937 by President Roosevelt after he had spent 10 years as a U.S. senator. (He would become one of the longest-tenured justices ever, serving until a few days before his death in 1971.)

Black was sitting on the court in 1942 when it handed down its Betts ruling that denied free legal representation for all but special-circumstance defendants in non-capital cases. Black had dissented in that case, and it was now time for him to get even by writing the historic Gideon decision.

The ruling began, "The right of an indigent defendant in a criminal trial to have the assistance of counsel is a fundamental right essential to a fair trial, and petitioner's trial and conviction without the assistance of counsel violated the Fourteenth Amendment."

The justices unanimously agreed: Gideon's conviction should be set aside.

Justice Black wrote that "precedents, reason and reflection" obligated all American courts to make a lawyer available to any person charged with a felony, regardless of ability to pay. He wrote:

"In our adversary system of criminal justice, any person haled 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 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 widespread 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."

Black went on for most of 11 pages with an indictment of the Betts ruling from 1942. He said the ruling had "departed from the sound wisdom" used in earlier cases related to free legal representation, and he added that the Betts opinion "was an anachronism when handed down."


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