Gideon v. Wainwright

Contributor: Nathan Murphy. Lesson ID: 13547

"If you cannot afford an attorney, one will be appointed for you free of charge.” We've all heard that before, but what does it mean? Has this always been the law? Find out in this lesson!


United States, United States

learning style
Auditory, Visual
personality style
Grade Level
High School (9-12)
Lesson Type
Dig Deeper

Lesson Plan - Get It!

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Clarence Gideon had been a drifter his entire life. Yet, after just a bit of research, he found an inconsistency in the U.S. Constitution that the Supreme Court had yet to recognize.


Clarence Gideon was arrested after a robbery had been committed in his general area and one person said they had seen him with the money. He had been a drifter his entire life, and this made him an easy target.

Gideon arrest photo, 1961

Image [cropped] by Florida Division of Corrections, via State Library and Archives of Florida, is in the public domain.

Gideon knew he didn't commit the robbery, so a lawyer should be able to defend him easily. As a result, he asked for one to be provided for him. However, under Florida law, people were only provided a free lawyer if they were facing a potential death sentence.

Without proper counsel from a lawyer, Gideon was found guilty and went to jail. While he was there, he did some research into U.S. law.

6th Amendment

Bill of Rights

The Bill of Rights guarantees certain rights and privileges to people on a federal level.

For instance, the 6th Amendment promises people can "have the assistance of counsel for his defence".

This means that, at a federal level, everyone has the right to counsel by a lawyer. However, this did not apply to the state judicial system.

14th Amendment

While doing more research, Gideon found an inconsistency betwen the 6th and 14th Amendments.

Read this excerpt from Section 1 and see if you can find it:

All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.

Gideon's Letter

inmate writing

Clarence Gideon believed the 14th Amendment gave him the right to a lawyer because the 6th Amendment guarantees it. Because Florida state law kept him from receiving an attorney it was restricting a privilege given by the federal government.

In a letter Gideon wrote directly to the Supreme Court, he accused Secretary of the Florida Division of Corrections Louie Wainwright of denying him counsel as promised in the 6th Amendment of the Constitution.

After reading the letter, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Gideon and gave all people in the nation the right to a lawyer regardless of economic status.



After the Gideon v. Wainwright decision, Clarence Gideon had a new trial -- with a lawyer this time. Within the first hour of the trial, Gideon was found not guilty of committing the robbery.

  • Isn't it incredible that a single person was able to change the American judicial system by simply writing a letter?

As you head into the Got It? section, consider why it took so long for this inconsistency to be discovered.

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