The petitioner, Clarence Earl Gideon, was charged with breaking and entering a pool room, a felony under Florida law. He appeared in court without a lawyer and asked the court to appoint one for him, but the court refused, saying that it only appointed counsel for indigent defendants in capital cases. Gideon defended himself at trial, but was convicted and sentenced to five years in prison. He filed a habeas corpus petition in the Florida Supreme Court, claiming that he was denied his constitutional right to counsel, but his petition was denied.
1. Whether the Sixth Amendment’s right to counsel in criminal prosecutions is made obligatory on the states under the Fourteenth Amendment?
2. Whether an indigent defendant in a state criminal trial has a right to have counsel appointed for him
1. Yes. The Sixth Amendment’s right to counsel is a fundamental right that is essential to a fair trial, and that it is made obligatory on the states by the Fourteenth Amendment.
2. Yes. An indigent defendant in a state criminal trial has a right to have counsel appointed for him, regardless of the nature or seriousness of the charge.
The Court overruled its previous decision in Betts v. Brady, 316 U.S. 455 (1942), which had held that the appointment of counsel for indigent defendants in state courts was not a constitutional requirement, but depended on the totality of the circumstances in each case. The Court overturned the Betts rule as being inconsistent with its own precedents and with the principle of equal justice under law. The Court reasoned that in the adversary system of criminal justice, any person who is too poor to hire a lawyer cannot be assured a fair trial unless counsel is provided for him. The Court also noted that lawyers are essential to protect the public’s interest in an orderly society, and that defendants who have money normally hire lawyers.. The Court concluded that the right to counsel is one of the safeguards of liberty and justice that lie at the base of all civil and political institutions, and that it applies to the states as well as to the federal government.
372 U.S. 335, 83 S. Ct. 792 (1963)