Gideon v. Wainwright

Gideon v. Wainwright.—Against this background, a unanimous Court in Gideon v. Wainwright221 overruled Betts v. Brady and held "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."222 Justice Black, a dissenter in the 1942 decision, asserted for the Court that Betts was an "abrupt break" with earlier precedents, citing Powell and Johnson v. Zerbst. Rejecting the Betts reasoning, the Court decided that the right to assistance of counsel is "fundamental" and the Fourteenth Amendment does make the right constitutionally required in state courts.223 The Court's opinion in Gideon left unanswered the question whether the right to assistance of counsel was claimable by defendants charged with misdemeanors or serious misdemeanors as well as with felonies, and it was not until recently that the Court held that the right applies to any misdemeanor case in which imprisonment is imposed—that no person may be sentenced to jail who was convicted in the absence of counsel, unless he validly waived his right.224 The Court subsequently extended the right to cases where a suspended sentence or probationary period is imposed, on the theory that any future incarceration which occurred would be based on the original uncounseled conviction.225

221 372 U.S. 335 (1963).

222 372 U.S. at 344.

223 372 U.S. at 342-43, 344. Justice Black, of course, believed the Fourteenth Amendment made applicable to the States all the provisions of the Bill of Rights, Adamson v. California, 332 U.S. 46, 71 (1947), but for purposes of delivering the opinion of the Court followed the due process absorption doctrine. Justice Douglas, concurring, maintained the incorporation position. Gideon, 372 U.S. at 345. Justice Harlan concurred, objecting both to the Court's manner of overruling Betts v. Brady and to the incorporation implications of the opinion. Id. at 349.

224 Scott v. Illinois, 440 U.S. 367 (1979), adopted a rule of actual punishment and thus modified Argersinger v. Hamlin, 407 U.S. 25 (1972), which had held counsel required if imprisonment were possible. The Court has also extended the right of assistance of counsel to juvenile proceedings. In re Gault, 387 U.S. 1 (1967). See also Specht v. Patterson, 386 U.S. 605 (1967).

Because the absence of counsel when a defendant is convicted or pleads guilty goes to the fairness of the proceedings and undermines the presumption of reliability that attaches to a judgment of a court, Gideon has been held fully retroactive, so that convictions obtained in the absence of counsel without a valid waiver are not only voidable,226 but also may not be subsequently used either to support guilt in a new trial or to enhance punishment upon a valid conviction.227

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