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Celebrating Gideon and the Right to Counsel

As we wind down the 2012 calendar year and look ahead to 2013 there is a very significant anniversary that should be celebrated in the criminal justice field – the 50th Anniversary of the 1963 Supreme Court decision in Gideon v. Wainwright. The Gideon case is the seminal case that guaranteed that every criminal defendant charged in the United States regardless of their financial means will always be guaranteed the right to have an attorney. The Supreme Court determined in Gideon that “lawyers in criminal courts are necessities, not luxuries.” This ruling molded the way the criminal defense bar in this country practices, as there would be no such thing as legal aid, public defenders, or court appointed panels such as 18B and CJA without this landmark decision.

The Gideon Case came out of Florida in August of 1961 when Clarence Gideon was charged with burglary of a pool hall. When Gideon appeared at court for his trial he was questioned by the judge overseeing his case about the absence of his attorney. Gideon stated to the judge that he did not have a lawyer and that he wanted the court to appoint one for him pursuant to the 6th Amendment of the United States Constitution. The court declined his request, saying that only persons charged with capital offenses are provided free legal counsel in Florida. The trial commenced without Gideon having an attorney to assist him and he was subsequently convicted of the charges and sentenced to the maximum period of incarceration for the crime – 5 years.

Gideon took the fight to the higher courts and wrote a hand written petition for a Writ of Habeas Corpus to the Florida Supreme Court to review his denial of a court appointed attorney at his trial. That Writ was subsequently denied. Gideon kept fighting and sought relief with the United States Supreme Court which was GRANTED and Abe Fortas became the lawyer appointed to argue Gideon’s case before the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court heard argument and read papers submitted by all parties and in 1963 ruled unanimously 9-0 that “any person haled into court, who is too poor to hire a lawyer, cannot be assured a fair trial unless counsel is provided to him… The right of one charged with crime to counsel may not be deemed fundamental and essential to fair trials in some countries, but it is in ours.”

It is important to consider that the Gideon decision was a unanimous decision by the Supreme Court, which is very rare. That speaks volumes as to how important the nine justices believed the right to an attorney in a criminal case is. This decision is one that should be applauded as it ensures that no person accused of criminal wrong doing will ever appear in court without the assistance of an attorney. Each attorney at Collins McDonald and Gann has helped carry out the protections granted to criminal defendants in Gideon by at one point in their careers participating on various court appointed counsel programs to represent indigent clients. Collins, McDonald and Gann salute the nine justices of the Supreme Court from 1963 as true trail blazers protecting the rights of the criminally accused.

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