Defeating Goliath

On March 18, 1963, the United States Supreme Court ruled in Gideon v . Wainwright that the Sixth Amendment’s guarantee of counsel in criminal cases is a fundamental right, essential to a fair trial, as provided by the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution. The court battle leading up to this ruling was truly a case of David v. Goliath.

“David” was Clarence Earl Gideon, a wrongly-convicted Florida man. Though he had only an eighth-grade education, Gideon’s tenacious fight for justice led to the landmark decision that bears his name. At the time of his arrest in June 1961, he was approaching his 51st birthday, though he looked much older. Lifelong poverty and years of drifting had taken its toll. Lacking resources of any sort, Mr. Gideon survived by moving from state to state — from Missouri to Texas to Florida — picking up criminal charges along the way. In a Panama City tavern on a summer day in 1961, Mr. Gideon was arrested and charged with stealing assorted bottles of wine, beer, Coca-Cola, and approximately $60 in jukebox proceeds from the Bay Harbor Pool Room. He was sentenced to a five-year term of incarceration. Mr. Gideon maintained his innocence and sought acquittal, insisting that he had been denied his Constitutional right to counsel.

With his middle-school education, this persistent man relied on the resources of the prison law library to appeal his case. After drafting a crude petition to the highest court in the land, Mr. Gideon won his right to be tried again, this time with legal representation. Abe Fortas, who practiced law prior to his Supreme Court appointment by President Lyndon Johnson in 1965, was appointed to the case. With his assistance, Clarence Earl Gideon was acquitted. As a result of Mr. Gideon’s efforts, anyone accused of a criminal offense today, for a misdemeanor or a felony, is entitled to public defense.

Civil Right to Counsel

In recent years, there has been a push to advocate for a “Civil Gideon” – the right to legal counsel in civil cases. Currently, no such right exists (or it exists only in limited circumstances and jurisdictions), even when basic human needs such as shelter, sustenance, safety, or health are at issue. In the jurisdictions that do provide a limited degree of legal assistance for civil legal concerns, the exceptions often involve children, including those in the juvenile dependency system or child protective services, or those who are unaccompanied minors in immigration or detention hearings. A right to counsel may also exist in guardianship, probate, and civil commitment proceedings, but in Texas, other decisions about civil legal representation are made, typically in “exceptional” circumstances, at the discretion of the judge.

The Texas Government Code states that a judge in either county or district court “may appoint counsel to attend to the cause of a party who makes an affidavit that he is too poor to employ counsel.” As an example of how this may play out in Texas courts, it’s worth looking at a 2003 case, Pitts v. The State of Texas, in which the appellant, Terry Pitts, was seeking an expunction of his criminal record. Pitts requested representation based on his claim of indigency, but an expunction, the court said, was not an “exceptional” case. Even though a criminal record is often used in Texas to deny housing or employment, and clearing one’s criminal record may be the first step in improving life circumstances, the court held that Pitts’s request for expunction was not dire. The court would not honor his request for court-appointed representation.

Those for whom access to justice is out-of-reach may find assistance through other channels, such as legal aid (if they qualify), mediation, alternative dispute resolution (ADR), or limited scope representation. Many, however, never do. These individuals, especially those facing more dire civil legal problems (e.g., eviction, debt collection, repossession, foreclosure, or domestic violence), could very much benefit from legal representation. If Civil Gideon should ever come to pass as a universal Constitutional right, the legacy of Clarence Earl Gideon, whose own case was decided on this day 59 years ago, would be fulfilled for all so that “justice should be the same, in substance and availability, without regard to economic status” and irrespective of the type of offense.

Additional Reading and Resources