Fifty years ago today, on March 18, 1963, the U.S. Supreme Court decided Gideon v. Wainwright, perhaps the most famous decision in the history of American criminal procedure.1
'Betts v. Brady'
Any discussion of Gideon should start with the Supreme Court's 1942 decision in Betts v. Brady.2
An unemployed farm hand, Smith Betts was indicted for robbery in Carroll County, Maryland. At his arraignment, Betts requested that counsel be appointed to represent him. The judge denied the request, telling Betts that the practice in the county was to appoint counsel for indigent defendants only in murder and rape cases. Without the aid of counsel, Betts proceeded to trial and was convicted and sentenced to eight years' imprisonment. After failing to obtain relief in the Maryland courts, he successfully petitioned the Supreme Court to hear his case.
Four years earlier, the court had held (in an opinion written by Justice Black, who was then in his first term) that the Sixth Amendment required the appointment of counsel for indigent defendants in federal prosecutions. In 1942, when Betts reached the Court, a debate was simmering among the justices as to whether the requirements of the Sixth Amendmentand, more broadly, those of the first eight amendmentsapplied to the states through the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Justice Owen Roberts began his opinion for the court in Betts by rejecting the incorporationist position: "the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment does not incorporate, as such, the specific guarantees found in the Sixth Amendment." As Justice Roberts saw it, states could adopt procedures for safeguarding the interests of the accused that were different from those employed in federal courts.
Justice Roberts framed the question in Betts as whether appointment of counsel was a "fundamental right, essential to a fair trial." He concluded that it was notat least not in Smith Betts' case, where the "simple issue was the veracity of the testimony for the State and that for the defendant." Betts, Justice Roberts found, "was a man forty-three years old, of ordinary intelligence and ability to take care of his own interests on the trial of that narrow issue."
Justice Black, joined by Justices Douglas and Murphy, dissented. After first stating his view that the Fourteenth Amendment made the Sixth applicable to the states, Justice Black addressed the majority on its own terms: "A practice cannot be reconciled with common and fundamental ideas of fairness and right, which subjects innocent men to increased dangers of conviction merely because of their poverty." Black's dissent had been foreshadowed at the court's conference in Betts, when he told his colleagues that it made him "vomit to think men go to prison for a long time" without having counsel to defend them.3
From 'Betts' to 'Gideon'
Between Betts and Gideon, the Supreme Court considered some 22 cases in which the question was whether there were "special circumstances" requiring the appointment of counsel for an indigent defendant charged in state court with a serious crime. It found special circumstances in all but three. Special circumstances came to include "the complicated nature of the offense charged and the possible defenses thereto"; the "ignorance, youth, or other incapacity of the defendant [that] made a trial without counsel unfair"; and the presence of a legal issue that was "too intricate for the layman to master."4 As Justice John Harlan would later write, the doctrine was stretched so thin that "the mere existence of a serious criminal charge [came to] constitute in itself special circumstances requiring the services of counsel at trial."5 The state courts, however, took a different approach. In the same period, state appellate courts considered the issue in 139 cases and found special circumstances in only 11.6
By 1961, Chief Justice Warren had his law clerks on the lookout for a case to overrule Betts. When Carnley v. Cohran reached the court in 1962, there was thought that it might be the one.7 Carnley, however, was charged with molesting his 13-year-old daughter, and Justice Frankfurter cautioned his colleagues that there could not be "a worse case, a more unsavory case to overrule a longstanding opinion."8 And so the court found special circumstances in Carnley and waited for a better case to come along. Gideon was that case.
Our image of Clarence Earl Gideon is shaped by Anthony Lewis' book "Gideon's Trumpet" and by Henry Fonda's portrayal of Gideon in the 1980 made-for-television movie. Lewis describes Gideon as a "fifty-one-year-old white man who had been in and out of prison much of his life""never a professional criminal or a man of violence" but rather a drifter "tossed aside by life," who had "made his way by gambling and occasional thefts." That portrait may be too flattering. In 1928, Gideon had received a 10-year sentence on three separate charges: robbery, burglary and larceny. He was released after three years but arrested again in 1932, this time on a federal charge, when he and others broke into a federal armory and stole a machine gun to use in a bank robbery. After serving three years in federal prison, Gideon was arrested for another burglary and convicted and sentenced to 10 years. In 1944, he escaped from prison but was rearrested a year later. Released in 1950, he was arrested in 1951 in Texas for burglary and served two more years.9 Thereafter, he supported himself by working tugboats and gambling, moving from Texas to Panama City, Florida in 1957 with his third wife.
The crime that led Gideon to the Supreme Court occurred on June 3, 1961. Early that morning, a man broke into a poolroom in Panama City and took coins from the cigarette machine and juke box, as well as a small amount of beer and wine. One witness identified Gideon as the culprit, and he was charged with the crime. Famously, the trial transcript begins as follows:
The Court: What says the Defendant? Are you ready to go to trial?
The Defendant: I am not ready, your Honor.
The Court: Why aren't you ready?