Rights of the Accused

Gideon v. Wainwright (1963)

Case background and primary source documents concerning the Supreme Court case of Gideon v. Wainwright. Dealing with whether or not a state must provide a lawyer to the accused, this lesson asks students whether or not they believe the Sixth Amendment guarantees the right to counsel in all cases and whether the government must provide a lawyer to defendants who want one but cannot afford one.

Founding Principles

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Due Process

The government must interact with all citizens according to the duly-enacted laws; applying these rules equally among all citizens.

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Equal Protection

The principle of equal justice under law means that every individual is equal to every other person in regards to natural rights and treatment before the law. There are no individuals or groups who are born with the right to rule over others.

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Every individual is equal to every other person in regards to natural rights and treatment before the law.

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Rule of Law

Government and citizens all abide by the same laws regardless of political power. Those laws respect individual rights, are transparently enacted, are justly applied, and are stable.

Case Background

At the time the Constitution was adopted, British courts denied lawyers to individuals charged with treason or felonies. People accused of criminal misdemeanors, however, were provided lawyers. The American colonies and, later, the states, rejected this practice. Most of the original thirteen states allowed defendants in all cases to have lawyers. Through the years, the Supreme Court has heard several cases involving the question of whether poor criminal defendants had a right to a lawyer at public expense, or whether the Sixth Amendment merely meant that the government could not stop accused persons from hiring one.

In 1961, Clarence Earl Gideon was arrested in Florida for breaking into a Panama City pool hall with the intent to steal money from the vending machines. This was a felony. When Gideon appeared in court, his request for a court-appointed lawyer was denied, as Florida law only required lawyers for defendants charged with capital offenses. Gideon defended himself at trial. He was found guilty, and sentenced to five years in prison.

While in prison, Gideon made frequent use of the prison library. With the knowledge he gained there, along with the help of a fellow inmate with a legal background, he submitted a hand-written petition to the Supreme Court. In his petition, he challenged the constitutionality of his conviction, as he had not been able to have the assistance of counsel for his defense.

Does an individual have a right to a lawyer, regardless of the crime that he or she is charged with? This Homework Help video explores this question and the case of Gideon v. Wainright.

Key Question

Does the Sixth Amendment guarantee the right to counsel in all cases? Further, does the Sixth Amendment require government to provide a lawyer to defendants who want one but cannot afford one?


Read the Case Background and Key Question. Then analyze Documents A-I. Finally, answer the Key Question in a well-organized essay that incorporates your interpretations of Documents A-I, as well as your own knowledge of history.


Documents you will examine:

  1. Sections of Colonial and State Constitutions, 1641-1777
  2. Section of the Sixth Amendment, 1791
  3. Section of the Fourteenth Amendment, 1868
  4. Powell v. Alabama, 1932
  5. Betts v. Brady, 1942
  6. Clarence Gideon’s Petition to the Supreme Court, 1962
  7. Unanimous Majority Opinion, Gideon v. Wainwright, 1963
  8. Concurring Opinion, Gideon v. Wainwright, 1963
  9. “I Can’t Defend Myself”, 2004

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