Gideons Trumpet: How One Man, a Poor Prisoner, Took His Case to the Supreme Court-And Changed the Law of the United States by Anthony LewisA lot of different things helped push me down the road to law school. Theres that scene in The Verdict when Paul Newman tells Charlotte Rampling about justice(See, the jury believes. The jury wants to believe...All of them...say, Its a sham, its rigged, you cant fight city hall. But when they step into that jury box...you just barely see it in their eyes...). Theres also the (as yet unrealized) promise of financial security. Maybe the most noble motivator I had was Anthony Lewiss Gideons Trumpet.
Clarence Earl Gideon was a poor drifter with a criminal history. On June 3, 1961, he was accused of taking $5 and some beer from a Florida pool hall. He was put on trial, denied counsel, and forced to defend himself pro se. Unsurprisingly, he lost, and was sentenced to five years in prison. He sent a petition to the United States Supreme Court, which took his case. The result was a case known to all law students: Gideon vs. Wainwright.
This was the case that gave life to the 6th Amendment, guaranteeing criminal defendants the right to counsel (since modified to require counsel if the defendant faces six months or more imprisonment).
This is a fascinating book because too often, the important cases that come down from the Supreme Court feel like exercises in the arcane. The nine justices sit in their marble temple and exclaim from on high. They thread factual needles, maneuver through procedural morasses, and carve their rules one stultifying opinion at a time. You forget - they forget - that there are lives at stake. That their decisions dont only affect the law, they affect people.
Gideons Trumpet is the story of a mostly-forgotten man that changed constitutional law. Anthony Lewis, who was a great writer for the New York Times, does an excellent job telling this story. I always enjoy reading books by journalists; whatever you sacrifice by not having an expert as the author, you get back in fact finding and narrative ability.
At the time of the Gideon case, Lewis shows how the tide of history was flowing in favor of the defendant. This was the heyday of the Warren Court, which remembered that little item called the Bill of Rights, and how it was supposed to protect the People from the Government. The Courts direction was underlined by its decision to appoint the eminent Abe Fortas to represent Clarence Gideon.
The Court had chosen someone of more than ordinary experience and ability to represent Gideon, and the honor carried with it a special responsibility. If that most basic right, to be represented by counsel, was now to be extended, to all those charged with serious crimes in any court, the justices would want all possible intellectual support for taking the step. Fortas saw his job as reaching each of the nine.
The Supreme Court ruled in Gideons favor. They found that the right to counsel is a fundamental right, necessary for there to be a fair trial. This ruling was made applicable to the states through incorporation by the Fourteenth Amendment. Gideon was granted a new trial and given a lawyer. The jury deliberated for one hour.
And he won.
The landscape of criminal law changed for the better post-Gideon. The Sixth Amendment has always given the right to counsel, but left out that thorny point about paying (and with lawyers, thats important). As Lewis points out, at the time of the decision, nearly 40 states already provided counsel for felony defendants. What Gideon did, however, was not only to provide attorneys for defendants in those other states, but to make the right to an attorney fundamental, and one that couldnt be taken away by a state having second thoughts. Moreover, many states had been appointing private attorneys to defend alleged criminals. This is like having a pediatrician doing surgery; sure, it might work out all right, and the basic training is there, but you really should have an expert. Gideon led to the rise of public defenders, providing the necessary bulwark against the expertise, manpower, and limitless resources of the state.
In America, you are guilty as soon as youre arrested. Thats just how things have evolved and theres no sense arguing otherwise. Still, its good to remember, from time to time, that the Goddesss Justice holds a scale. On one side is the state, its prosecutors, investigators, police officers, and detectives. On the other side, for a period in 1963, was one man sitting in his prison cell scribbling a petition to the Supreme Court.
This man balanced the scales. Gideons Trumpet tells his story.
Clarence Earl Gideon
Clarence Earl Gideon August 30, January 18, was a poor drifter and amateur attorney accused in a Florida state court of felony theft. His case resulted in the landmark U. Supreme Court decision Gideon v. Wainwright , holding that a criminal defendant who cannot afford to hire a lawyer must be provided one at no cost. At Gideon's first trial in August , he represented himself and was convicted. After the Supreme Court ruled in Gideon that the state had to provide defense counsel for the indigent, Florida retried Gideon. At his second trial, which took place in August , with a court-appointed lawyer representing him and bringing out for the jury the weaknesses in the prosecution's case, Gideon was acquitted.
Skip to main navigation. Clarence Earl Gideon was an unlikely hero. He was a man with an eighth-grade education who ran away from home when he was in middle school. He spent much of his early adult life as a drifter, spending time in and out of prisons for nonviolent crimes. Gideon was charged with breaking and entering with the intent to commit a misdemeanor, which is a felony under Florida law. At trial, Gideon appeared in court without an attorney.
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