The Los Angeles Criminal Law Blog

Thank Gideon for Your Right to an Attorney

Whether it's from personal experience or too many reruns of "Law and Order," most people know that you have the right to an attorney in a criminal trial. But Gideon often doesn't get the credit for securing that right for you.

By Gideon, we mean Clarence Earl Gideon -- the man behind Gideon v. Wainwright, a Supreme Court case that marks its 50th anniversary next month.

You may never have heard of the case, but that doesn't make it any less important. Not only did it ensure your right to an attorney, it defined what that means.

The right to be represented by counsel is as old as the Constitution. It's written right there in the Sixth Amendment: "In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right ... to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defence."

But that's not a lot of words on what is an important subject. In 1963, Clarence Gideon challenged the limits of that right.

Gideon couldn't afford an attorney to represent himself and at the time, Florida didn't provide attorneys except in capital cases. At his trial, Gideon acted as his own counsel, and lost.

From prison, he petitioned the Supreme Court, stating that the Constitution merely guarantees "assistance of counsel" and doesn't specify what crimes it applies to.

The High Court agreed and ruled that criminal defendants are always entitled to have an attorney provided if they can't afford one. The decision extended the Sixth Amendment protection to state courts as well as federal courts.

That case was important for guaranteeing the right to an attorney at trial for all criminal defendants. It also paved the way for later protections related to the right to counsel.

Today, criminal defendants have the right to an attorney from the first pre-trial hearing through the first appeal in most states.

For people who can't afford an attorney, most states have a test to determine whether you're eligible for a public defender. If you qualify, one will be provided in every criminal matter.

If you find yourself in legal trouble, there's a good chance the right to an attorney will come in handy. You can thank Gideon for that.

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