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Study Notes

Gideon v Wainwright 1963

A Level
AQA, Edexcel, OCR, IB

This Supreme Court case ruled that states in criminal cases must provide legal counsel to those who are unable to afford to pay for their own defence. The case is found under the Fourteenth Amendment as it extends the Fifth and Sixth amendments to the states.

Pencil written appeal by Gideon from prison to the Supreme Court.

Background to the case:

In Panama City, Florida, in June 1961 a Pool Room was burgled with money taken from the register. A witness reported that Clarence Earl Gideon at the pool room around 05:30am on the night of burglary. It was stated that Gideon had a wine bottle and money stuffed into his pockets. With this accusation alone, police arrested and charged Gideon.

When Gideon appeared in Court he was alone and was told that the Court could not appoint counsel to him as it was not a capital offense. Gideon claimed that the United States Supreme Court stated he was entitled to be represented by counsel. Despite this claim, no counsel was appointed. Gideon was sentenced to five years in Prison.

The Case:

Whilst in prison, Gideon appealed to the Supreme Court against the Secretary of the Florida Department of Corrections, Louie L Wainwright. Gideon claimed that his denial of counsel was a violation of his Sixth Amendment rights extended to him under the Fourteenth Amendment.

The Supreme Court in hearing the case, assigned an attorney and future Supreme Court justice Abe Fortas, to Gideon. The Court found that the Sixth Amendment did not distinguish between capital and non capital cases, and therefore the State of Florida violated the Sixth Amendment.


The Court ruled unanimously that the right to counsel was protected under the Sixth Amendment. As a result of this 2000 prisoners were freed, although not Gideon himself. He was however allowed a retrial in which he was provided Counsel and was subsequently acquitted.

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