Literature Study GuidesGideon V Wainwright

Gideon v. Wainwright | Study Guide

United States Supreme Court

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United States Supreme Court

Year Decided



Primary Source


Law, U.S. Supreme Court Case

At a Glance

  • In 1961 Clarence Earl Gideon (1910–72) was accused of burglarizing a Florida pool hall. He was tried in state court. Unable to hire a lawyer, he conducted his own defense. The court found him guilty.
  • While in prison, Gideon petitioned the Florida Supreme Court, which concurred with the lower court. He then successfully petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court to review the case.
  • The U.S. Supreme Court found that the 6th Amendment guaranteed Gideon the right to be represented by an attorney in state court too. The justices further determined that courts must appoint an attorney for defendants unable to afford one.
  • In deciding this case, the Court reversed the finding of Betts v. Brady (1942). Betts v. Brady had held that the law does not require courts to appoint counsel for poor defendants.
  • One immediate consequence of the case was a vast expansion of the public defender system, whereby attorneys are assigned to defendants by the courts.
  • The "David versus Goliath" underdog nature of the case, meanwhile, captured the imagination of the American public. Anthony Lewis's 1964 book Gideon's Trumpet, along with the 1980 film of the same name, reflects the wide contemporary interest in Gideon and his story and its impact on American life.


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