In Gideon v. Wainwright, 372 U.S. 335 (1963), the Court held that the Sixth Amendment requirement of the assistance of counsel was obligatory on the states under the Fourteenth Amendment. In Gideon, then, the Court overruled its earlier decision in Betts v. Brady, 315 U.S. 455 (1962). Justice Black wrote the majority opinion. Justices Douglas, Clark, and Harlan each concurred in separate opinions.
In Gideon, the defendant, Clarence Gideon, was charged in Florida state court with breaking into and entering a poolroom with intent to commit a misdemeanor inside. This was, of course, a noncapital offense under Florida law. He appeared in court without any money and without a lawyer and asked the court to appoint a lawyer for him at state expense. The court refused to do so. The defendant then went to trial and, like Betts, defended himself. Although the courts observed that he did a fairly good job, he was found guilty of the charges. Gideon appealed, seeking review of the lower court’s order refusing to appoint counsel for him. Not surprisingly, the conviction was upheld on appeal because the state courts properly followed the existing Supreme Court opinion in Betts v. Brady, discussed earlier.
However, the U.S. Supreme Court took Gideon’s case and reversed his conviction. Returning to the issue of whether counsel is required in noncapital cases, the Court changed its mind and overruled their decision in Betts.
The Court held that Betts v. Brady had been wrongly decided and that the right to counsel was fundamental. In doing so, it relied on Powell v. Alabama, 287 U.S. 45 (1932), and Grosjean v. American Press Co., 297 U.S. 233 (1936), as two cases that had recognized the fundamental nature of the right, although limiting the holdings to the facts of those cases. Accordingly, the Court held that Betts was an ‘‘abrupt break with its own well-considered precedents.’’ In addition to relying on its precedents, the Court held that ‘‘reason and reflection’’ require the recognition that any person who is haled into court without an attorney cannot be assured a fair trial. The court recognized that the government hires lawyers to prosecute people and defendants hire the best lawyers they can to represent them and that these are evidence ‘‘of the widespread belief that lawyers in criminal courts are necessities, not luxuries.’’
Justice Douglas concurred, restating his long-held position on the so-called ‘‘total incorporation’’ theory. Under that theory, Justice Douglas believed that the Bill of Rights was incorporated as a whole and applicable on the states as it was to the federal courts through the Fourteenth Amendment. Justice Clark concurred in the result, indicating that, as far as he was concerned, the Court had already held that the Fourteenth Amendment required counsel in all capital crimes and that the majority’s decision did no more than ‘‘erase a distinction which has no basis in logic and an increasingly eroded basis in authority.’’ That is, the Constitution ‘‘makes no distinction between capital and noncapital cases.’’
Justice Harlan also concurred, agreeing that Betts should be overruled. But he did not view Betts as a break with precedent. According to Justice Harlan, Betts simply held that special circumstances could require the appointment of counsel in noncapital trials, but required that such circumstances be present. As Justice Harlan explained, the special circumstances rule exists but its substance has been eroded. ‘‘The court has come to recognize, in other words, that the mere existence of a serious criminal charge constituted in itself special circumstances requiring the services of counsel at trial. In truth the Betts v. Brady rule is no longer a reality.’’
Cases and Statutes Cited