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Significance of Gideon v. Wainwright: How it Impacted Society Today



It is common knowledge that the U.S Constitution involves the establishment of significant rights. Specifically, the right to court-appointed counsel afforded by the Sixth Amendment in federal prosecutions and extent state trials under the Fourteenth Amendment. However, it may not be common knowledge that prior to 1963, this Constitution actually did not exist. It wasn’t until after the Gideon v. Wainwright case that established the right to the public was changed.

To start off, the case first began in 1961 with the arrest of Clarence Earl Gideon who was charged with breaking and entering as well as stealing money in Panama City, Florida. During the trial, Gideon requested for an attorney, since he wasn’t able to afford legal support, to which the judge replied that the state of Florida was only able to provide attorneys to those who are indigent defendants charged with serious crimes that may lead to the death penalty if found guilty. And just like that, without any proper attorney to help defend his case, Gideon was sentenced to five years in prison. Furious by this verdict, Gideon decided to file for a habeas corpus petition (which is a petition that attempts to release individuals from unjust imprisonment) to the Supreme Court in Florida. Although the Florida Supreme Court denied his petition, Gideon was determined and decided to appeal his case to the U.S Supreme Court, in which they accepted to review his case two years after his conviction. The Supreme Court, in 1963, then ruled that the Constitution would now require the state to provide defense attorneys as well as any other legal support to criminal defendants that cannot afford lawyers.


So how exactly did this case impact today’s society? After the establishment of this Constitution, the Supreme Court had to look back at a previous case that asked the same question of whether or not the state followed the same “right to counsel” rule that the federal courts had to abide by. In Betts v. Brady, Smith Betts, a Maryland farm worker, requested for a defense attorney to represent him for a robbery case. However, similar to Gideon, this request was denied due to the state of Maryland could only provide legal support to those involved in capital cases. In other words, at that time during Betts’ trial, the refusal to appoint him counsel was not a violation of his Fourteenth Amendment.


After careful consideration, the Supreme Court decided that the Betts v. Brady case would have to be reconsidered due to the nature of the Sixth and Fourteenth Amendment as Betts was denied access to the right to a fair trial with adequate legal representation. This decision ultimately created a large impact on the criminal justice system as the “right to counsel” was now a new rule federal courts had to follow. From this moment forward, anyone, regardless of their background, would be able to recess equal legal support without having to risk representing themselves, possibly putting their freedom in danger.


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