Brief Fact Summary. Gideon was charged with a felony in Florida state court. He appeared before the state Court, informing the Court he was indigent and requested that the Court appoint him an attorney. The Court declined to appoint Gideon an attorney, stating that under Florida law, the only time an indigent defendant is entitled to appointed counsel is when he is charged with a capital offense.
Synopsis of Rule of Law. This case overruled Betts and held that the right of an indigent defendant to appointed counsel is a fundamental right, essential to a fair trial. Failure to provide an indigent defendant with an attorney is a violation of the Fourteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution (“Constitution”).
Issue. Whether the Sixth Amendment constitutional requirement that indigent defendants be appointed counsel is so fundamental and essential to a fair trial that it is made obligatory on the states by the Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution?
Held. The right to counsel is a fundamental right essential to a fair trial and due process of law.
Concurrence. Justice Tom Clark (“J. Clark”) concurred and recognized that the Sixth Amendment of the Constitution clearly required appointment of counsel in “all criminal prosecutions” and that the Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution requires appointment of counsel in all prosecutions for capital crimes. The instant decision does no more than erase an illogical distinction. J. Clark further concludes that the Constitution makes no distinction between capital and non capital cases. The Fourteenth Amendment requires due process of law for the deprivation of liberty just as equally as it does for deprival of life. Accordingly, there cannot be a constitutional distinction in the quality of the process based merely upon the sanction to be imposed.
Justice John Harlan (“J. Harlan”): Agrees that Betts v. Brady should be overruled, but argues that Betts recognized that there might be special circumstances in non capital cases requiring the appointment of counsel. In non capital cases the special circumstances continued to exist, but have been substantially and steadily eroded, culminating in the instant decision. J. Harlan clarified his view that he does not believe that the Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution incorporates the entire Sixth Amendment resulting in all federal law applies to all the States. J. Harlan still wants to preserve to the States their independence to make law and procedures consistent with the divergent problems and legitimate interests that the States face that are difference from each other and different from the Federal Government.
Discussion. The Supreme Court, in reaching its conclusion that the right to counsel is a fundamental right imposed upon the states pursuant to the Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution, engages in an analysis of its previous decisions holding that other provisions of the Bill of Rights are fundamental rights made obligatory on the States. The Supreme Court accepts the Betts v. Brady assumption that a provision of the Bill of Rights which is fundamental and essential to a fair trial is made obligatory on the states by the Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution. The Supreme Court diverges from Betts in concluding that the right to assistance of counsel is a fundamental right. The Supreme Court found that the Betts Court’s conclusion that assistance of counsel is not a fundamental right was an abrupt break from its own well-considered precedent. The Supreme Court further reasons that the right to be heard at trial would be, in many cases, of little avail without the assistance of counsel who is familiar with the rules of court, the rules of evidence and the general procedure of the court system. Without the assistance of counsel “though he be not guilty, he faces the danger of conviction because he does not know how to establish his innocence.”