Gideon v. Wainwright (1963)

Supreme Court Case.

“If you cannot afford an attorney, one will be appointed for you,” goes the famed Miranda warning. This wasn’t always the case. The Sixth Amendment’s right to counsel has been in place since the ratification of the Bill of Rights, but this provision did not require the state to provide counsel generally for poor defendants until the Gideon case. In a series of cases culminating with Gideon v. Wainwright, the Supreme Court required states to provide counsel when defendants cannot afford it. Read the passage from the Court’s opinion and answer the questions below.


In returning to these old precedents, we . . . restore constitutional principles established to achieve a fair system of justice. Not only these precedents, but also reason 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. 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. From the very beginning, our state and national constitutions and laws have laid great emphasis on procedural and substantive safeguards designed to assure fair trials before impartial tribunals in which every defendant stands equal before the law. This noble ideal cannot be realized if the poor man charged with crime has to face his accusers without a lawyer to assist him.Majority Opinion by Mr. Justice Hugo Black

1. What does Mr. Black declare is an “obvious truth”?

2. Does the court view defense lawyers as necessities or luxuries? Why?

3. What noble idea cannot be realized in court or at trial without defense attorneys?


Photo/Image: Clarence Earl Gideon, Florida Bureau of Prisons