If you can’t afford a defense attorney, do you have the right to get legal counsel for free? Where does this right come from? In our second installment for our series on landmark cases, we’re taking a look at Gideon v. Wainright (1963). Just like last week’s post, this case also involves the rights of the accused. We’ll review the details of the case, as well as talk about why it’s relevant to you today.
Gideon v. Wainright Case
First, let’s talk about the case itself. In June of 1961, Clarence Earl Gideon was accused of robbery. During the trial, Mr. Gideon was too poor to afford legal counsel, and the court at that time only supplied pro bono legal counsel for capital offenses. So, Mr. Gideon had to represent himself. Ultimately, he was declared guilty and sentenced to five years in prison. From prison, Mr. Gideon made appeals, claiming his Sixth Amendment and Fourteenth Amendment rights had been violated because he was denied legal counsel.
Finally, the U.S. Supreme Court heard the case. The basic question they faced was, “Does the Constitution grant that someone charged with a felony, but who cannot afford a lawyer, guaranteed the free assistance of legal counsel?” They reached an unanimous decision in 1963, deciding that “lawyers in criminal court are necessities, not luxuries.”
Therefore, if you cannot afford your own attorney in a criminal case, the court will appoint one for you. Usually a public defender. Hence, the Miranda warning says, “You have the right to an attorney. If you cannot afford an attorney, one will be appointed for you.”
Gideon v. Wainright and You
Second, what does this case have to do with you? How is it still relevant today? Fortunately, this case means that you don’t have to defend yourself in court. Imagine facing criminal charges and having to go toe-to-toe in court with a professional lawyer or the district attorney! You’d face someone with legal experience, a thorough knowledge of the law, and professional training. How could that be fair? Thankfully, the U.S. Supreme Court doesn’t think it’s unfair. And so, you’re guaranteed legal counsel in criminal trials.