Robbins: Gideon vs Wainwright was a seminal case in American law |

Robbins: Gideon vs Wainwright was a seminal case in American law

A seminal American legal case has come to be known by the name of the book and made-for-TV movie that popularized it as “Gideon’s Trumpet.” 

The first Gideon, he of biblical fame, was a military leader, judge, and prophet whose calling and victory over the Midianites are recounted in chapters 6 through 8 of the Book of Judges. As a leader of the Israelites, he won a decisive victory over a Midianite army despite a vast numerical disadvantage.

His “trumpet,” as it were, derives from Judges 7:20, which holds that, “The three companies blew the trumpets and smashed the jars. Grasping the torches in their left hands and holding in their right hands the trumpets they were to blow, they shouted, “A sword for the Lord and for Gideon!”

As the true-life protagonist in the case of Gideon v. Wainright shared the same name as the biblical hero, by a clever literary device, Anthony Lewis, the author of the 1964 book which memorialized the case, conscripted the military leader’s trumpet, arguably making the second “Gideon” — Clarence Earl Gideon — more famous than the first.

Such, I suppose, are the vagaries of religion, literature, and history.

Who, then, was the second Gideon?

He was an inmate.

In June of 1961, Clarence Earl Gideon was arrested in Panama Bay, Florida and charged with the crime of breaking and entering. When he appeared in court without a lawyer (he was too poor to afford one), Gideon requested that the court appoint one for him.

According to Florida law at the time, however, an attorney could only be appointed on behalf of an indigent defendant in capital cases (that is, a murder case). Accordingly, the court refused to appoint one. With no other option, Gideon represented himself at trial.

Despite what was purely circumstantial evidence, Gideon was convicted and sentenced to five years in the state penitentiary. 

Facing long odds

Gideon, however, was not done. Like his biblical namesake, despite overwhelming odds, Clarence Earl Gideon took on the state of Florida and, ultimately, the U.S. Constitution. 

With only an eighth grade education, and from his prison cell, working on his own and scratching out his argument in pencil, Gideon appealed his conviction, first to the state of Florida. Louie L. Wainright was the Secretary of the Florida Department of Corrections.

What Gideon filed with the Florida Supreme Court was a “habeas corpus” petition (Latin for “that you have the body”) which is employed to have the court determine if a state’s detention of a prisoner is valid. 

When the Florida Supreme Court refused him, Gideon next appealed to the United States Supreme Court. 

The nexus of his argument was that he had been denied counsel and, accordingly, his Sixth Amendment rights, as applied by the 14th Amendment, had been violated. The Sixth Amendment sets forth rights related to criminal prosecution. The 14th Amendment applies those rights to the states through the due process clause.

The court assigned Gideon prominent Washington D.C. attorney, Abe Fortas (later Supreme Court Justice Fortas) to represent him in his appeal.

The decision was announced in March, 1963.

A unanimous decision

In a unanimous decision, authored by Justice Hugo Black, the court held that it was wholly consistent with the constitution to require state courts to appoint counsel for defendants who could not afford to retain an attorney on their own. The court reasoned that the Sixth Amendment’s guarantee of counsel is a fundamental and essential right. The Sixth guarantees the accused the right to assistance of counsel in all criminal prosecutions and requires courts to provide counsel for defendants unable to hire their own unless that right is knowingly, competently and intelligently waived.

The Sixth Amendment right to counsel is made obligatory upon the states by the 14th Amendment. 

Gideon changed things. As Robert F. Kennedy once observed, “If an obscure Florida convict named Clarence Earl Gideon had not sat down in his prison cell . . . to write a letter to the Supreme Court . . . the vast machinery of American law would have gone on functioning undisturbed. But Gideon did write that letter, the Court did look into his case . . . and the whole course of American legal history has been changed.” 

From Gideon forward, those accused in all criminal trials in all states of the union and before the federal courts were entitled to appointed counsel if they could not afford their own. The playing field was leveled.

Modernly, when one is “read their rights,” that recitation includes the admonition that “…You have the right to attorney. If you cannot afford an attorney, one will be provided for you….” 

This is part of what is known as the “Miranda Rights” and is sometimes called being “Mirandized.” Why Miranda? That is fodder for another column which will appear later in this series.

After his acquittal, Gideon resumed his previous life, married, and died of cancer in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, in 1972, age 61. His family buried him in an unmarked grave in Hannibal, Missouri. Later, the local chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union added a granite headstone, inscribed with a quote from a letter Gideon wrote to his attorney Abe Fortas, “Each era finds an improvement in law for the benefit of mankind.”

Rohn K. Robbins is an attorney licensed before the bars of Colorado and California who practices in the Vail Valley with the law firm of Stevens, Littman, Biddison, Tharp & Weinberg LLC. His practice areas include business and commercial transactions, real estate and development, family law, custody and divorce and civil litigation. Robbins may be reached at 970-926-4461 or at his email address,

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