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Street Law, Inc. and The Supreme Court Historical Society present
Street Law /
Landmark Cases /
Gideon v. Wainwright
"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 Six Amendment requires state courts to provide attorneys for criminal defendants who cannot otherwise afford counsel.
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.
What Does the Sixth Amendment Mean? To Whom Does It Apply?
Does a Lawyer Really Make a Difference In a Trial?
Political Cartoon Analysis
The Evolution of a Decision
WebQuest: In Forma Pauperis
WebQuest: How to Provide Counsel to Indigent Defendants
Expanding Criminal Rights: In re Gault and Argersinger v. Hamlin
Gideon at 40: Understanding the Right to Counsel (A lesson plan from the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers)
* Answers to the background questions, vocabulary, and activities can be found in the FOR TEACHERS ONLY tab under each case.
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:
Follow up with a class discussion.
This section contains answers and tips for differentiated instruction for select activities. To gain access, simply sign in.
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