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Equal Access to Justice: The Sixth Amendment's Right to Legal Counsel

Oct. 16, 2023

You may know the Sixth Amendment guarantees that anyone facing criminal prosecution has the right to an attorney whether they can afford it or not.

But many Americans are unaware that this right has not always been upheld, which is why we decided to share the landmark case that changed it all: Gideon v. Wainwright.

The background: In 1961, Clarence Gideon was arrested after being found near the scene of a burglary in Panama City, Florida. When he asked for a lawyer to be appointed to him according to his Sixth Amendment rights, he was denied. Gideon unsuccessfully defended himself and was found guilty of breaking and entering and petty larceny.

The argument: While serving his sentence, Gideon decided to study law and soon realized his rights had been violated. He hand-wrote a petition for the Supreme Court to hear his case.

The conclusion: Upon reviewing his situation, the Court unanimously ruled in Gideon’s favor, reaffirming that the Sixth Amendment requires states to provide attorneys to criminal defendants who can’t afford a lawyer.

After Gideon died due to cancer in 1972, the local American Civil Liberties Union chapter had an inscribed headstone added to his unmarked grave.

On it was a quote from a letter Gideon wrote to his attorney: "I believe that each era finds an improvement in law for the benefit of mankind."