The decision was unanimous. Justice Black delivered the opinion of the Court.
Since 1942, when Betts v. Brady . . . was decided by a
divided Court, the problem of a defendant's federal constitutional right
to counsel has been a continuing [sic] source of controversy and
litigation in both state and federal courts. To give this problem
another review here, we granted certiorari . . . Since Gideon was proceeding in forma pauperis,
we appointed counsel to represent him and requested both sides to
discuss in their briefs and oral arguments the following: "Should this
Court's holding in Betts v. Brady be reconsidered?
. . . .
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 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. Betts argued that
this right is extended to indigent defendants in state courts by the
14th 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 14th Amendment." . . . In order to decide
whether the Sixth Amendment's guarantee of counsel is of this
fundamental nature, the Court in Betts set out and considered "[r]elevant data on the subject.
. . . .
On the basis of this historical data the Court concluded that
"appointment of counsel is not a fundamental right, essential to a fair
. . . .
Explicitly recognized to be of this "fundamental nature" and
therefore made immune from state invasion by the 14th. . . are
the First Amendment's freedoms of speech, press, religion, assembly,
association, and petition for redress of grievances . . . the Fifth
Amendment's command that private property shall not be taken for public
use without just compensation, the Fourth Amendment's prohibition of
unreasonable searches and seizures, and the Eighth's ban on cruel and
. . . .
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 14th 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 . . . had . . . declared that "the right to the aid of counsel is of this fundamental character." Powell v. Alabama, . . . (1932). While the Court at the close of its Powell
opinion did . . . limit its holding to the particular facts and
circumstances of that case, its conclusions about the fundamental nature
of the right to counsel are unmistakable.
. . . Not only these precedents but also reason and reflection
require us to recognize that in our adversary system of criminal
justice, any person haled into court, who is too poor to hire a lawyer,
cannot be assured a fair trial unless counsel is provided for him. This
seems to us to be an obvious truth. Governments, both state and federal .
. . spend vast sums of money to . . . try defendants accused of crime .
. . Similarly, there are few defendants charged with crime, few indeed,
who fail to hire the best lawyers they can get to prepare and present
their defenses. That government hires lawyers to prosecute and
defendants who have the money hire lawyers to defend are the strongest
indications of the widespread belief that lawyers in criminal courts are
necessities, not luxuries. The right of one charged with crime to
counsel may not be deemed fundamental and essential to fair trials in
some countries, but it is in ours. From the very beginning, our state
and national constitutions and laws have laid great emphasis on
procedural and substantive safeguards designed to assure fair trials
before impartial tribunals in which every defendant stands equal before
the law. This noble ideal cannot be realized if the poor man charged
with crime has to face his accusers without a lawyer to assist him. A
defendant's need for a lawyer is nowhere better stated than in the
moving words of Mr. Justice Sutherland in Powell v. Alabama:
The Court in Betts v. Brady departed from the sound wisdom upon which the Court's holding in Powell v. Alabama rested. Florida, supported by two other States, has asked that Betts v. Brady be left intact. Twenty-two states, as friends of the Court, argue that Betts was "an anachronism when handed down" and that it should now be overruled. We agree.
The judgment is reversed and the cause is remanded to the Supreme
Court of Florida for further action not inconsistent with this opinion.
Questions to Consider
Why did the Supreme Court of the United States agree to hear Gideon's case?
Prior to this case, which rights were considered to be "fundamental
and essential to a fair trial" and thus "made obligatory on the States
by the 14th Amendment"? Why do you think the right to a lawyer was
not included in this list?
What did the Court say about the right to counsel in the Powell case?
When Justice Black says, "Governments, both state and federal . . .
spend vast sums of money to . . . try defendants accused of crime. . . .
Similarly, there are few defendants charged with crime, few indeed, who
fail to hire the best lawyers they can get to prepare and present their
defenses", what point is he trying to make? Provide an example of a
recent case in which "vast sums of money" were spent. Do you think it
made a difference in the outcome of the case? Explain.
Many of the decisions the Supreme Court of the United States makes are based on the principle of stare decisis, or let the previous decision stand. In the case of Gideon v. Wainwright, the Court clearly broke with a precedent it had established. Was it justified in doing so?