Photo Credit: State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory,

Fifty years ago today, the United States Supreme Court ruled on a letter, written in pencil by a 62-year-old man named Earl C. Gideon from his prison cell.  Because of Mr. Gideon, people today have a right to lawyer.

He Told the Justices He Had Been Denied a Lawyer

Mr. Gideon told the justices that he had been denied a lawyer at trial when he was convicted of burglary by a Florida court.  He also told the court that he still needed a lawyer to assist him in his quest for freedom.

I have seen this letter (or petition) which was posted on a wall in a Supreme Court museum exhibit. Gideon wrote this letter in pencil, on lined paper, from his prison cell. I remember that this was a long, long letter that repeatedly, and compellingly,  proved how he had been prejudiced in the Florida trial court because he did not have legal representation.  During that trial, he had asked the judge to appoint him a lawyer.  The judge refused.

The Supreme Court Appointed a Lawyer to Represent Mr. Gideon

Before the case was argued and decided by the United States Supreme Court, it appointed Abe Fortas to represent Gideon during the appeal. (Later, Fortas had a brief, storied career as a U.S. Supreme Court Justice).

Your Right to Counsel, Thanks to Mr. Gideon

Fifty years ago today, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a decision, based on Mr. Gideon’s appeal, that resulted in what we know as the modern right to counsel:

The right to be heard would be, in many cases, of little avail if it did not comprehend the right to be 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, he faces the danger of conviction because he does not know how to establish his innocence.

Mr. Gideon Lived His Last Ten Years as a Free Man

Gideon’s letter started a chain of events which changed the face of American law: “If you cannot afford a lawyer, one will be appointed to represent you at state expense.” After the U.S. Supreme Court reversed Gideon’s conviction, he was retried with the help of a lawyer. The jury found him not guilty in just one hour, and he lived another ten years as a free man.

The whole course of American legal history has been changed
-Robert F. Kennedy

If an obscure Florida convict named Clarence Earl Gideon had not sat down in his prison cell with a pencil and paper to write a letter to the Supreme Court, and if the Court had not taken the trouble to look for merit in that one crude petition … the vast machinery of American law would have gone on functioning undisturbed. But Gideon did write that letter, the Court did look into his case … and the whole course of American legal history has been changed.”

Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy
Speech Before the New England Conference on the
Defense of Indigent Persons Accused of Crime
November 1, 1963

Call 24/7: 303-309-0430

Colorado criminal defense attorney Shaun Kaufman is proud of having been a public defender the first seven years of his career.  “The reason we have public defender offices today,” says Kaufman, “is because of Mr. Earl C. Gideon’s tenacity.”  Shaun Kaufman won the American Jurisprudence Award for Excellence in the Study of Constitutional Law in 1983, and has nearly three decades of trial court experience.

Contact Shaun Kaufman Law 24/7 by calling 303-309-0430 or by filling out the contract form on the right side of this page.