In 1963, a unanimous United States Supreme Court overruled a decision it had made two decades before, and announced in Gideon v. Wainwright, a decision written by Justice Black, that due process of law required the appointment of counsel for people accused of felonies.
Before Gideon was even decided, it should have been clear that a momentous decision was coming. Gideon did have a lawyer, so the Court appointed Abe Fortas, who would later become a Supreme Court Justice, to represent him. The ACLU filed an amicus curiae brief authored by legal heavyweights urging the Court to declare that the the Constitution’s due process clause contained a right to appointed counsel for indigents accused of felonies. And 22 states filed amicus briefs agreeing with the ACLU. Among the State Attorney Generals signing the brief were Walter Mondale and Thomas Eagleton.
Justice Black’s decision, published on March 18, 1963, began dramatically:
Petitioner was charged in a Florida state court with having broken and entered a poolroom with intent to commit a misdemeanor. This offense is a felony under [372 U.S. 335, 337] Florida law. Appearing in court without funds and without a lawyer, petitioner asked the court to appoint counsel for him, whereupon the following colloquy took place:
“The COURT: Mr. Gideon, I am sorry, but I cannot appoint Counsel to represent you in this case. Under the laws of the State of Florida, the only time the Court can appoint Counsel to represent a Defendant is when that person is charged with a capital offense. I am sorry, but I will have to deny your request to appoint Counsel to defend you in this case.
“The DEFENDANT: The United States Supreme Court says I am entitled to be represented by Counsel.”
Put to trial before a jury, Gideon conducted his defense about as well as could be expected from a layman. He made an opening statement to the jury, cross-examined the State’s witnesses, presented witnesses in his own defense, declined to testify himself, and made a short argument “emphasizing his innocence to the charge contained in the Information filed in this case.” The jury returned a verdict of guilty, and petitioner was sentenced to serve five years in the state prison. …
Since 1942, when Betts v. Brady, 316 U.S. 455 , was decided by a divided [372 U.S. 335, 338] Court, the problem of a defendant’s federal constitutional right to counsel in a state court has been a continuing source of controversy and litigation in both state and federal courts. To give this problem another review here, we granted certiorari. 370 U.S. 908 .
And, after reviewing prior Supreme Court decisions, Justice Black’s opinion concluded with a crash of thunder:
In light of these and many other prior decisions of this Court, it is not surprising that the Betts Court, when faced with the contention that “one charged with crime, who is unable to obtain counsel, must be furnished counsel by the State,” conceded that “[e]xpressions in the opinions of this court lend color to the argument . . . .” 316 U.S., at 462
463. The fact is that in deciding as it didthat “appointment of counsel is not a fundamental right, [372 U.S. 335, 344] essential to a fair trial” – the Court in Betts v. Brady made an abrupt break with its own well-considered precedents. In returning to these old precedents, sounder we believe than the new, we but restore constitutional principles established to achieve a fair system of justice. Not only these precedents but also reason and reflection require us to recognize that in our adversary system of criminal justice, any person haled into court, who is too poor to hire a lawyer, cannot be assured a fair trial unless counsel is provided for him. This seems to us to be an obvious truth. Governments, both state and federal, quite properly spend vast sums of money to establish machinery to try defendants accused of crime. Lawyers to prosecute are everywhere deemed essential to protect the public’s interest in an orderly society. Similarly, there are few defendants charged with crime, few indeed, who fail to hire the best lawyers they can get to prepare and present their defenses. That government hires lawyers to prosecute and defendants who have the money hire lawyers to defend are the strongest indications of the widespread belief that lawyers in criminal courts are necessities, not luxuries. 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. From the very beginning, our state and national constitutions and laws have laid great emphasis on procedural and substantive safeguards designed to assure fair trials before impartial tribunals in which every defendant stands equal before the law. This noble ideal cannot be realized if the poor man charged with crime has to face his accusers without a lawyer to assist him. A defendant’s need for a lawyer is nowhere better stated than in the moving words of Mr. Justice Sutherland in Powell v. Alabama:
“The right to be heard would be, in many cases, of little avail if it did not comprehend the right to be [372 U.S. 335, 345] heard by counsel. Even the intelligent and educated layman has small and sometimes no skill in the science of law. If charged with crime, he is incapable, generally, of determining for himself whether the indictment is good or bad. He is unfamiliar with the rules of evidence. Left without the aid of counsel he may be put on trial without a proper charge, and convicted upon incompetent evidence, or evidence irrelevant to the issue or otherwise inadmissible. He lacks both the skill and knowledge adequately to prepare his defense, even though he have a perfect one. He requires the guiding hand of counsel at every step in the proceedings against him. Without it, though he be not guilty, he faces the danger of conviction because he does not know how to establish his innocence.” 287 U.S., at 68 -69.
The Court in Betts v. Brady departed from the sound wisdom upon which the Court’s holding in Powell v. Alabama rested. Florida, supported by two other States, has asked that Betts v. Brady be left intact. Twenty-two States, as friends of the Court, argue that Betts was “an anachronism when handed down” and that it should now be overruled. We agree.