Gideon v. Wainwright Term Paper

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Gideon v. Wainwright

Case Name: Gideon v. Wainwright

372 U.S. 335

Year Decided: 1963

Character: Defendant Gideon sought review of the decision of the Supreme Court of Florida, which denied his petition for a writ of habeas corpus. Defendant he was convicted in a Florida State Court for a non-capital felony after the trial court refused his request for appointed counsel due to his indigency.

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Facts: Defendant was charged with breaking and entering with intent to commit a misdemeanor, which was a non-capital felony under Florida law. Defendant appeared in the trial court and asked the trial judge for the appointment of an attorney, because defendant's indigency made him unable to hire an attorney. The trial judge correctly informed defendant that he was not entitled to a court-appointed attorney under Florida law and denied his request. Florida law only provided for the appointment of counsel in capital cases. Defendant faced a trial by jury, where he represented himself in his defense. Defendant was found guilty by the jury and was sentenced to five years in state prison. Defendant filed a petition for habeas corpus relief in the Florida Supreme Court, attacking his conviction on the grounds that Florida's failure to provide him with appointed counsel violated his Sixth Amendment right to counsel. The Florida Supreme Court denied defendant's petition for relief. The Supreme Court granted certiorari, appointed counsel to represent defendant, and heard the arguments. The Court had previously considered a similar question in the case of Betts v. Brady, 316 U.S. 455, and had determined that a state's failure to provide counsel for an indigent defendant charged with a felony did not violate the Fourteenth Amendment.

Term Paper on Gideon v. Wainwright Assignment

Issues: Should the Supreme Court's holding in Betts v. Brady, 316 U.S. 455, be reconsidered? If so, should the Supreme Court's holding in Betts v. Brady be overruled? Does a refusal to appoint counsel for an indigent defendant charged with a felony in a state criminal court proceeding necessarily violate the Sixth Amendment? Does a refusal to appoint counsel for an indigent defendant charged with a felony in a state criminal court proceeding violate the Fourteenth Amendment?

Decision: The Court reversed and remanded the decision of the Supreme Court of Florida. The Court determined that the Florida state law which provided counsel to indigent defendants only if they were facing capital charges did not adequately protect a defendant's Sixth Amendment right to counsel. The Court overruled Betts v. Brady. The Court determined that the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment extends the Sixth Amendment's protections to proceedings in state courts, and that indigent defendants are entitled to court-appointed counsel in all state criminal court felony proceedings, regardless of whether the threatened punishment is the loss of liberty or the loss of life.

Opinion: The facts in Betts v. Brady were similar to the facts in this case; an indigent defendant sought court-appointed counsel to defend him against a non-capital criminal charges. His request was denied and that defendant was convicted. He challenged his conviction. In Betts v. Brady, the Court held that a refusal to appoint counsel for an indigent defendant did not necessarily violate the Fourteenth Amendment's Due Process Clause, and that the determination of whether a defendant was denied Due Process was to be evaluated based on the totality of the facts in a given case. The Betts v. Brady court determined that the appointment of counsel was not a fundamental right essential to a fair trial; therefore the Fourteenth Amendment did not require appointment of counsel in a state court. The Court agreed with the Betts v. Brady court and found that when rights were fundamental, the Fourteenth Amendment operated to apply them to state proceedings. However, the Court disagreed with the Betts v. Brady court and determined that the right to counsel was such a fundamental right. In 1932, in Powell v. Alabama, 287 U.S. 45, the Court determined that the right to counsel was a fundamental right, though it limited its holding to the facts of that case. However, the Court found that Powell v. Alabama's conclusions about the fundamental nature of the right to counsel was unmistakable; it clearly found that the right to counsel was a fundamental right. The Court also found that the Supreme court had reiterated its conclusion from Powell v. Alabama in the following decisions: Grosjean v. American Press Co., 297 U.S. 233, Johnson v. Zerbst, 304 U.S. 458, Avery v. Alabama, 308 U.S. 444, and Smith v. O'Grady, 312 U.S. 329.

The Court found that in an adversarial system of criminal justice, a person who is too poor to hire an attorney simply cannot be assured of a fair trial without appointed counsel. The Court found that attorneys were essential to the concepts of due process and a fair trial. The Court pointed out that prosecutors were considered necessary to protect the public's interest in criminal trials and that those who could afford attorneys hired them when facing criminal charges, and that both of these occurrences indicate that attorneys are necessities, not luxuries. The state and federal constitutions emphasize the procedural safeguards that guarantee a fair trail. The Court held that the noble ideal of a fair tribunal cannot be realized if indigent defendants have to face their accusers without the assistance of counsel. As explained in Powell v. Alabama, most lay people simply do not have sufficient experience in the law to adequately defend themselves, and these infirmities exist regardless of a defendant's education and intelligence level.

Concurrence: There were three separate concurrences: Justice Douglas, Justice Clark, and Justice Harlan.

Justice Douglas joined the opinion of the Court, but felt that the Court had not provided an adequate history of the Court's decisions about the Sixth and Fourteenth Amendments. Justice Douglas provided a history of the relationship between the Bill of Rights and the Fourteenth Amendment. He pointed out that ten justices have indicated that the Fourteenth Amendment protects the Bill of Rights from infringement by the states.

Justice Clark also concurred in the result. He believed that the Sixth Amendment required the appointment of counsel in all criminal prosecutions, and that the Constitution makes no distinction between capital and non-capital cases. He believes that the Court's decision in Reid v. Covert, 354 U.S. 1 foreshadowed the Court's conclusion that the Sixth Amendment mandated the appointment of counsel for indigent defendants. Clark reasoned that Due Process of law was guaranteed for the deprivation of liberty, as well as the deprivation of life, and that there could not constitutionally be a difference in the amount of process due based on the sanction.

Justin Harlan's concurred with the Court's decision that Betts v. Brady should be overruled, but disagreed with the Court's tone, which he believed was disrespectful to the Betts v. Brady court. He believed that the right to appointed counsel in state prosecutions in non-capital cases was an extension of existing precedent, so that Betts v. Brady was not actually a departure from that precedent. He believes that the Court recognizes that the mere existence of serious criminal charges constituted the kind of special circumstances requiring the Fourteenth Amendment's due process guarantees, but not necessarily the Sixth Amendment's protections of counsel because there was a difference in state and federal interests.

Dissent: None.

Comment: What this case indicates to me is that the Fourteenth Amendment's Due Process guarantees are substantial. While the Fourteenth Amendment may not require the states to observe every right guaranteed in the Bill of Rights, it does extend substantial protection to defendants in state criminal court proceedings. This makes sense to me, given that the overwhelming majority of criminal trials are state criminal trials. To guarantee Americans the right to counsel in the Sixth Amendment, but deny those protections to state criminal court defendants, would render the Sixth Amendment substantially ineffective.

One of the interesting aspects about his case is that it suggests that there is no difference in the amount of Due Process to be given to defendants in capital and non-capital offenses. Such an assumption flies in the face of later jurisprudence, which firmly establishes the concept that death is fundamentally different from other types of punishments, and requires heightened constitutional safeguards. This difference had not been recognized at the time of this decision, and I wonder if such a difference would have led to a different conclusion. However, I doubt that it would have. The Due Process Clause specifically guarantees that people will not be deprived of life, liberty, or property without due process of law. Therefore, because it names the possible punishments and states that anyone in jeopardy of those punishments is entitled to due process, it is unlikely that the decision would have changed even if it had occurred after the decisions stating that death is essentially different from possible imprisonment.

Furthermore, this case makes it clear that the Court is willing to extend most of the criminal protections found in the Bill of Rights to states. The criminal protections found… [END OF PREVIEW] . . . READ MORE

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APA Style

Gideon v. Wainwright.  (2008, February 26).  Retrieved April 14, 2021, from

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"Gideon v. Wainwright."  26 February 2008.  Web.  14 April 2021. <>.

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"Gideon v. Wainwright."  February 26, 2008.  Accessed April 14, 2021.