Gideon’s Trumpet, by Anthony Lewis, documents the case of Gideon v. Wainwright, the pivotal 1963 case in which the Supreme Court required American courts to appoint legal counsel for defendants unable to hire lawyers for themselves. Lewis demonstrates that the Warren court (and Justice Hugo Black in particular) acted boldly by overturning thirty years of legal precedent and expanded the protections offered by the Sixth and Fourteenth Amendments, thus granting impoverished defendants the right to competent legal assistance.
The case itself was not controversial at the time it was first tried in 1961. Clarence Earl Gideon, an impoverished 51-year-old drifter with a history of convictions for burglary and petty theft, was arrested in Panama City, Florida, for stealing change from vending machines in a pool hall. Unable to pay for legal counsel himself, Gideon requested but was denied counsel by trial judge Robert McCrary, who imposed a five-year sentence. While in state prison, the unschooled Gideon researched his right to counsel and sent his petition to the federal court of appeals in early 1962. Despite its unconventional appearance (Gideon wrote in pencil on prison stationery and used language revealing his scant education), the case attracted attention and was heard by the Supreme Court the following year, having caught the attention of Justice Hugo Black, who had dissented with a similar case, Betts v. Brady, in 1942. One of Black’s friends, Abe Fortas, was appointed to argue the case on Gideon’s behalf, and in 1963 the court decided unanimously in Gideon’s favor, thus requiring America’s courts to provide counsel for defendants unable to hire their own attorneys.
Gideon’s case was one of four cases in which the court’s responsibility to appoint counsel for the accused was clarified. The first, Powell v. Alabama, concerned the Scottsboro Boys, nine black youths wrongly convicted of raping two white women in 1931 and had their sentences upheld despite the fact that one of the supposed victims admitted the accusations were false. In the Powell case, presented in their defense, the Supreme Court found that the trial judge had denied them their Fourteenth Amendment right to due process and had ignored the Sixth Amendment (the right to a speedy trial by an impartial jury). Here, the Supreme Court incorporated the Sixth and Fourteenth Amendments, a point that would later be reiterated in Gideon. Lewis deems the Powell decision “an historic advance for liberty . . .[and] the first occasion on which the Supreme Court had actually reversed a state criminal conviction because of unfair procedures at trial” (Lewis, 1964, p. 108). However, the decision did not specify fixed rules for providing counsel, setting only vague guidelines that required court-appointed counsel in capital cases or when defendants were mentally or educationally impaired, not simply poor.
Betts v. Brady, decided in 1942, anticipated Gideon by two decades and set a strict precedent. In this case, a poor Maryland farm worker named Smith Betts was convicted of robbery (like Gideon’s crime, not a capital offense) after the trial judge denied him counsel. Like Gideon, Betts appealed the decision, but six of the Supreme Court’s justices agreed with the prosecution, claiming that “appointment of counsel is not a fundamental right, essential to a fair trial” (Lewis, 1964, p. 111). In its view, poverty was not considered grounds for providing counsel despite the fact that many defendants lacked the education and professional skill necessary to mount a successful defense. Decided during World War II, it was criticized (by Justice Black, among others) for denying rights at a time when the United States was fighting fascism and questioning its own practices. Twenty-one years later, Black led the effort to overturn Betts with the Gideon decision.
In his discussion of the Supreme Court, Lewis devotes very little attention to Chief Justice Earl Warren, who presided over one of the most progressive phases of the court’s history, starting with the overturning of segregation with 1954’s Brown decision. He mentions that Warren agreed with Black that Betts v. Brady should be overturned but says little more about him in the book, perhaps because Warren still held his post when the book appeared in 1964 and his historical legacy had yet to be written.
Instead, Lewis writes at considerably more length about Hugo Black, the Alabama-born justice who had dissented with the court’s majority decision in Betts v. Brady two decades earlier, because the Fourteenth Amendment was meant to incorporate the protections granted by the Sixth Amendment (Lewis, 1964, p. 112). He used Powell v. Alabama as precedent and deemed poverty a suitable circumstance for appointing counsel for an indigent client. In addition, he was a friend of Abe Fortas, the liberal lawyer who represented Gideon before the Supreme Court. Lewis depicts Black as a fervent advocate of civil liberties and of rights for the accused. When comparing his activist philosophy to that of the more restrained Felix Frankfurter (who ruled against the plaintiff in Betts v. Brady), Lewis writes that Black “has emphasized the duty of judges to preserve individual liberty, and has argued that excessive deference to other branches of government amounts to abdication of that responsibility” (Lewis, 1964, p. 83).
His friend Fortas, a renowned corporate attorney and former New Deal official, served as Gideon’s counsel before the Supreme Court. A liberal New Deal Democrat (whose political leanings caused the filibuster that blocked him from joining the Supreme Court in 1968), Fortas did not consider Betts v. Brady an absolute, because it left the requirements for appointing counsel rather vague, and he said of the special circumstances affecting Clarence Gideon: “. . . [There] was nothing to show that he had suffered from any special circumstances. But if you went behind that bare record, there might be. . . .” (Lewis 55) Fortas saw in Clarence Gideon a defendant for whom the existing legal system simply did not work, and this constituted a basic unfairness.
In addition, the Gideon decision also clarified the incorporation process, by which the Fourteenth Amendment applies to state judiciaries and subordinates state decisions to the Bill of Rights’ mandates. Black, who believed for over twenty years that the Betts decision was wrong, advocated “complete incorporation,” meaning that the states were obligated to respect the entire Bill of Rights in its decisions. Justice Frankfurter, on the other hand, believed in a much less sweeping interpretation; his approach was evident in Betts, but after he retired in 1962, the Court moved away from his restrained approach (Lewis, 1964, pp. 82-84). Black found that both the Sixth and Fourteenth Amendments required states to provide counsel for indigent defendants, and he argued that states were obligated to honor the Fourteenth Amendment to the same extent that it incorporated protections given by the amendments in the Bill of Rights. He wrote in his opinion: “We accept Betts v. Brady’s assumption . . . that a provision of the Bill of Rights which is ‘fundamental and essential to a fair trial’ is made obligatory upon the states by the Fourteenth Amendment. We think the Court in Betts was wrong, however, in concluding that the Sixth Amendment’s guarantee of counsel is not one of these fundamental rights” (Lewis, 1964, p. 188).
The Gideon case set a standard, requiring that courts appoint counsel for defendants in felony cases, but the Argersinger v. Hamlin decision in 1972 broadened this, extending the law to the accused in all cases, regardless of how minor. In this case, also decided in Florida, an indigent defendant named Jon Argersinger was convicted for carrying a concealed weapon and sentenced to six months in jail. Like Clarence Gideon, he was too poor to hire an attorney, but where Gideon had committed a felony, Argersinger was convicted of a much less serious misdemeanor charge. The Supreme Court decided in this case that the court must provide the accused with legal counsel, regardless of how petty the charge (Goldman, 1996). This case was essentially the last word on the question of providing counsel for defendants unable to pay for it themselves, since it expanded the criterion from serious felonies to misdemeanor charges as well.
As Gideon’s Trumpet demonstrates, the Gideon v. Wainwright decision of 1963 was important because it helped extend equal access to the justice system to defendants who had previously lacked it due to their poverty. Author Anthony Lewis shows not only a deep understanding of the case, but also how it helped define the rights of the accused to be represented in court. He depicts Justice Black as an astute advocate of broad individual rights and liberties whose persistence and understanding of the law overturned what he considered an unfair standard and helped define the Warren court’s progressive character as much as the like-minded chief justice himself. In addition, he offers an insightful look at a pivotal moment in American criminal law, when the rights of the accused became broader, more meaningful, and ultimately more equitable, reflecting the social progress that characterized post-World War II America.
Goldman, Jerry. “Argersinger v. Hamlin.” 1996. Oyez – U.S. Supreme Court Multimedia. 10 November 2005. <http://www.oyez.org/oyez/resource/case/17/>.
Lewis, Anthony. Gideon’s Trumpet. New York: Random House, 1964.