GIDEON v. WAINWRIGHT, CORRECTIONS DIRECTOR
MR. JUSTICE BLACK delivered the opinion of the Court.
Petitioner was charged in a
"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
"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 [**793] 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. Later, petitioner filed in the Florida
Supreme Court this habeas corpus petition attacking his conviction and sentence
on the ground that the trial court's refusal to appoint counsel for him denied
him rights "guaranteed by the Constitution and the Bill of Rights by the
United States Government." n1 Treating the petition for habeas corpus as
properly before it, the State Supreme Court, "upon consideration thereof"
but without an opinion, denied all relief.
Since 1942, when Betts v. Brady, 316 U.S. 455, was decided
by a divided [*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. n2 To give this problem another review here, we granted
n1 Later in the petition for habeas corpus, signed and apparently prepared by petitioner himself, he stated, "I, Clarence Earl Gideon, claim that I was denied the rights of the 4th, 5th and 14th amendments of the Bill of Rights."
n2 Of the many such cases to reach this Court, recent
examples are Carnley v. Cochran, 369
U.S. 506 (1962);
The facts upon which Betts claimed
that he had been unconstitutionally
[***802] denied the right to have
counsel appointed to assist him are strikingly like the facts upon which Gideon
here bases his federal constitutional claim.
Betts was indicted for robbery in a
"Asserted denial [of due process] is to be tested by an appraisal of [**794] the totality of facts in a given case. That which may, in one setting, constitute a denial of
fundamental fairness, shocking to the universal sense of justice, may, in other
circumstances, and in the light of other considerations, fall short of such
Treating due process as "a concept less rigid and more fluid than those envisaged in other specific and particular provisions of the Bill of Rights," the Court held that refusal to appoint counsel under the particular facts and circumstances in the Betts case was not so "offensive to the common and fundamental ideas of fairness" as to amount to a denial of due process. Since the facts and circumstances of the two cases are so nearly indistinguishable, we think the Betts v. Brady holding if left standing would require us to reject Gideon's claim that the Constitution guarantees him the assistance of counsel. Upon full reconsideration we conclude that Betts v. Brady should be overruled.
[***HR1] The Sixth Amendment provides, "In all
criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right . . . to have the
Assistance of Counsel for his defence." We have construed [*340] this to mean that in federal courts counsel
must be provided for defendants unable to employ counsel unless the right is
competently and intelligently waived. n3 Betts argued
that this right is extended to indigent defendants in state courts by the
Fourteenth Amendment. In response the Court stated that, while the Sixth
Amendment laid down "no rule for the conduct of the States, the question
recurs whether the constraint laid by the Amendment upon the national courts
expresses a rule so fundamental and essential to a fair trial, and so, to due
process of law, that it is made obligatory upon the States by the Fourteenth
n3 Johnson v. Zerbst, 304 U.S. 458 (1938).
We think the Court in Betts had ample precedent for acknowledging
that those guarantees of the Bill of Rights which are fundamental safeguards of
liberty immune from federal abridgment are equally protected against state
invasion by the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. This same
principle was recognized, explained, and applied in Powell v. Alabama,
287 U.S. 45 (1932), a case upholding the right of counsel, where the Court held
that despite sweeping language to the contrary in Hurtado
v. California, 110 U.S. 516
[**795] (1884), the Fourteenth
Amendment "embraced" those "'fundamental principles of liberty
and justice which lie at the base of all our civil and political
institutions,'" even though they had been "specifically dealt with in
another part of the federal Constitution." 287
n4 E. g., Gitlow v. New York, 268 U.S. 652, 666 (1925) (speech and press); Lovell v. City of Griffin, 303 U.S. 444, 450 (1938) (speech and press); Staub v. City of Baxley, 355 U.S. 313, 321 (1958) (speech); Grosjean v. American Press Co., 297 U.S. 233, 244 (1936) (press); Cantwell v. Connecticut, 310 U.S. 296, 303 (1940) (religion); De Jonge v. Oregon, 299 U.S. 353, 364 (1937) (assembly); Shelton v. Tucker, 364 U.S. 479, 486, 488 (1960) (association); Louisiana ex rel. Gremillion v. NAACP, 366 U.S. 293, 296 (1961) (association); Edwards v. South Carolina, 372 U.S. 229 (1963) (speech, assembly, petition for redress of grievances).
n5 E. g., Chicago, B. & Q. R. Co. v. Chicago, 166 U.S. 226, 235-241 (1897); Smyth v. Ames, 169 U.S. 466, 522-526 (1898).
n6 E. g., Wolf v.
n7 Robinson v.
We accept Betts v. Brady's assumption, based as it was on
our prior cases, 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.
Ten years before Betts v. Brady, this Court, after full
consideration of all the historical data examined [**796] in Betts, had unequivocally declared
that "the right to the aid of
[*343] counsel is of this
fundamental character." Powell v.
"We concluded that certain fundamental rights, safeguarded by the
first eight amendments against federal action, were also safeguarded against
state action by the due process of law clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, and
among them the fundamental right of the accused to the aid of counsel in a
criminal prosecution." Grosjean v. American
Press Co., 297
And again in 1938 this Court said:
"[The assistance of counsel]
is one of the safeguards of the Sixth Amendment deemed necessary to insure
fundamental human rights of life and liberty. . . . The Sixth Amendment stands as a constant [***805] admonition that if the constitutional
safeguards it provides be lost, justice
will not 'still be done.'" Johnson v. Zerbst, 304
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 "expressions in the opinions of this court lend color to the
argument . . . ." 316
"The right to be heard would be, in many cases, of little avail if
it did not comprehend the right to be [*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, [***806] he faces the danger of conviction because he
does not know how to establish his innocence." 287
The Court in Betts v. Brady departed from the sound
wisdom upon which the Court's holding in Powell v.
The judgment is reversed and the cause is remanded to the Supreme Court of Florida for further action not inconsistent with this opinion.
MR. JUSTICE DOUGLAS.
While I join the opinion of the Court, a brief historical resume of the relation between the Bill of Rights and the first section of the Fourteenth Amendment seems pertinent. Since the adoption of that Amendment, ten Justices have felt that it protects from infringement by the States the privileges, protections, and safeguards granted by the Bill of Rights.
Justice Field, the first Justice Harlan, and probably Justice Brewer,
took that position in O'Neil v. Vermont, 144 U.S. 323, 362-363,
370-371, as did Justices BLACK, DOUGLAS, Murphy and Rutledge in Adamson
v. California, 332 U.S. 46, 71-72, 124.
And see Poe v. Ullman, 367
n1 Justices Bradley, Swayne
and Field emphasized that the first eight Amendments granted citizens of the
"In my judgment, immunity from self-incrimination is protected against hostile state action, not only by . . . [the Privileges and Immunities Clause], but [also] by . . . [the Due Process Clause]."
Justice Brewer, in joining the opinion of the Court,
abandoned the view that the entire Bill of Rights applies to the States in Maxwell
v. Dow, 176
My Brother HARLAN is of the view that a guarantee of the Bill of Rights that is made applicable to the States by reason of the Fourteenth Amendment is a lesser version of that same guarantee as applied to the Federal Government. n2 [***807] Mr. Justice Jackson shared that view. n3 [*347] But that view has not prevailed n4 and rights protected against state invasion by the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment are not watered-down versions of what the Bill of Rights guarantees.
n2 See Roth v.
n3 Beauharnais v.
n4 The cases are collected by MR. JUSTICE BLACK in Speiser v. Randall, 357
MR. JUSTICE CLARK, concurring in the result.
v. Illinois, 333 U.S. 640 (1948), this Court found no special
circumstances requiring the appointment of counsel but stated that "if
these charges had been capital charges, the court would have been required,
both by the state statute and the decisions of this Court interpreting the
Fourteenth Amendment, to take some such steps."
n1 It might, however, be said that there is such an
implication in Avery v.
That the Sixth Amendment requires appointment of counsel in "all
criminal prosecutions" is clear, both from the language of the Amendment
and from this Court's interpretation.
See Johnson v. Zerbst, [**799] 304
"Obviously Fourteenth Amendment cases dealing with state action
have no application here, but if
[*349] they did, we believe that
to deprive civilian dependents of the safeguards of a jury trial here . . .
would be as invalid under those cases as it would be in cases of a capital
n2 Portents of today's decision may be found as well in
I must conclude here, as in Kinsella, supra, that the Constitution makes no distinction between capital and noncapital cases. The Fourteenth Amendment requires due process of law for the deprival of "liberty" just as for deprival of "life," and there cannot constitutionally be a difference in the quality of the process based merely upon a supposed difference in the sanction involved. How can the Fourteenth Amendment tolerate a procedure which it condemns in capital cases on the ground that deprival of liberty may be less onerous than deprival of life -- a value judgment not universally accepted n3 -- or that only the latter deprival is irrevocable? I can find no acceptable rationalization for such a result, and I therefore concur in the judgment of the Court.
n3 See, e. g., Barzun, In Favor of Capital Punishment, 31 American Scholar 181, 188-189 (1962).
MR. JUSTICE HARLAN, concurring.
I agree that Betts v. Brady should be overruled, but consider it entitled to a more respectful burial than has been accorded, at least on the part of those of us who were not on the Court when that case was decided.
I cannot subscribe to the view
that Betts v. Brady represented "an abrupt break with its
own well-considered precedents." Ante, p. 344. In 1932, in Powell v. Alabama,
287 U.S. 45, a capital case, this Court declared that under the particular
facts there presented -- "the ignorance and illiteracy of the defendants,
their youth, [**800] the circumstances of public hostility . . .
and above all that they stood in deadly peril of their lives" (287 U.S.,
at 71) -- the state court had a duty to assign counsel for [*350]
the trial as a necessary requisite of due process of law. It is evident
that these limiting facts were not added to the opinion as an afterthought;
they were repeatedly emphasized, see 287
Thus when this Court, a decade
later, decided Betts v. Brady, it did no more than to admit of
the possible existence of special circumstances in noncapital
as well as capital [***809] trials, while at the same time insisting that
such circumstances be shown in order to establish a denial of due process. The right to appointed counsel had been
recognized as being considerably broader in federal prosecutions, see Johnson
v. Zerbst, 304
The principles declared in Powell and in Betts, however, have had a troubled journey throughout the years that have followed first the one case and then the other. Even by the time of the Betts decision, dictum in at least one of the Court's opinions had indicated that there was an absolute right to the services of counsel in the trial of state capital cases. n1 Such dicta continued to appear in subsequent decisions, n2 and any lingering doubts were finally eliminated by the holding of Hamilton v. Alabama, 368 U.S. 52.
n1 Avery v.
n2 E. g., Bute
cases, the "special circumstances" rule has continued to exist in
form while its substance has been substantially and steadily eroded. In the first decade after Betts, there
were cases in which the Court
[*351] found special
circumstances to be lacking, but usually by a sharply divided vote. n3 However, no such decision has been cited to us, and I
have found none, after Quicksall v.
n3 E. g., Foster v.
n4 E. g., Williams v. Kaiser,
This evolution, however, appears not to have been fully recognized by many state courts, in this instance charged with the front-line responsibility for the enforcement of constitutional rights. n5 To continue [**801] a rule which is honored by this Court only with lip service is not a healthy thing and in the long run will do disservice to the federal system.
n5 See, e. g., Commonwealth ex rel.
Simon v. Maroney, 405
The special circumstances rule has been formally abandoned in capital cases, and the time has now come when it should be similarly abandoned in noncapital cases, at least as to offenses which, as the one involved here, carry the possibility of a substantial prison sentence. [***810] (Whether the rule should extend to all criminal cases need not now be decided.) This indeed does no more than to make explicit something that has long since been foreshadowed in our decisions.
In agreeing with the Court that the right to counsel in a case such as
this should now be expressly recognized as a fundamental right embraced in the
Fourteenth Amendment, I wish to make a further observation. When we hold a right or immunity, valid
against the Federal Government, to be "implicit in the concept of ordered
liberty" n6 and thus valid against the States, I do not read our past
decisions to suggest that by so holding, we automatically carry over an entire
body of federal law and apply it in full sweep to the States. Any such concept would disregard the
frequently wide disparity between the legitimate interests of the States and of
the Federal Government, the divergent problems that they face, and the
significantly different consequences of their actions. Cf. Roth v.
n6 Palko v.
On these premises I join in the judgment of the Court.