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Street Law, Inc. and The Supreme Court Historical Society present

Landmark Cases of the U.S. Supreme Court

Street Law / Landmark Cases / Cases / Gideon v. Wainwright

Gideon v. Wainwright (1963)

Right to Counsel, Due Process

"If an obscure Florida convict named Clarence Earl Gideon had not sat down in his prison cell . . . to write a letter to the Supreme Court . . . 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." —Robert F. Kennedy

In June 1961, a burglary occurred at the Bay Harbor Pool Room in Panama City, FL.  Police arrested Clarence Earl Gideon after he was found nearby with a pint of wine and some change in his pockets. Gideon, who could not afford a lawyer, asked a Florida Circuit Court judge to appoint one for him arguing that the Sixth Amendment entitles everyone to a lawyer. The judge denied his request and Gideon was left to represent himself. He did a poor job of defending himself and was found guilty of breaking and entering and petty larceny. While serving his sentence in a Florida state prison, Gideon began studying law, which reaffirmed his belief his rights were violated when the Florida Circuit Court refused his request for counsel. From his prison cell, he handwrote a petition asking the U.S. Supreme Court to hear his case and it agreed. The Court unanimously ruled in Gideon’s favor, stating that the Sixth Amendment requires state courts to provide attorneys for criminal defendants who cannot otherwise afford counsel.

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About the materials

These materials were developed for students of various skill levels, and teachers should choose the level that works best for their students.  Answers to the background questions, vocabulary, and activities can be found in the FOR TEACHERS ONLY tab under each case.

Background summary and questions to consider (by reading level)

Important vocabulary (by reading level)

Legal Concepts

Other useful background information



The Case
After the Case

* Answers to the background questions, vocabulary, and activities can be found in the FOR TEACHERS ONLY tab under each case.

Teaching strategies used

Planning time and activities

If you have one day . . .

  • Begin your study of Gideon by having students complete the Document Analysis activity.
  • Read the appropriate background summary (•) as a class and have students answer the questions. Discuss as a class.
  • Complete the video activity: Does a Lawyer Really Make a Difference In a Trial?
  • For homework, have students read the Key Excerpts from the Majority Opinion and answer the questions. (In doing the video activity, students will have already found out the outcome of the case. Have them read the opinion anyway. Tell them it's important that they understand the Court's reasoning.)

If you have two days . . .

If you have three days . . .

If you have four days . . .

  • Complete all the activities listed for "If you have three days . . ." with the exception of the homework for the third day. For homework, have students finalize their WebQuest: In Forma Pauperis presentations instead of doing the conclusion question.
  • On the fourth day, have students present their WebQuest findings. Students should respond in writing to the question in the conclusion section of the WebQuest.
  • For homework, have students complete the Expanding Criminal Rights: In re Gault and Argersinger v. Hamlin.

Note to Teacher

In lieu of the WebQuest on days three and four, have students peruse the Recommended Resources listed in the RESOURCES tab and respond to the following questions:

  • Is there "equal justice under the law" for rich and poor defendants in this country? Explain.
  • If not, what do you think needs to be done to ensure that all people receive "equal justice under the law?"

Follow up with a class discussion.

For Teachers Only

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