Gideon and the Attorneys General

In 1961 Clarence Gideon, a drifter with a criminal record, was charged with breaking into a pool room in Panama City, Florida, to steal cigarettes and coins. He was arrested the following day on a felony charge, after a witness claimed to have seen him near the building. Due to indigence, Gideon maintained his innocence without an attorney, but he argued that he was entitled to legal counsel. The judge rejected his argument: Florida law afforded counsel only in capital cases. From prison he filed a habeas corpus petition, which the Florida Supreme Court rejected. Gideon then petitioned the US Supreme Court in a simple, handwritten letter. The Court took notice and took the case, assigning noted trial lawyer and future Supreme Court Justice Abe Fortas to argue it.

For the Supreme Court case Gideon v. Wainwright (1963), Minnesota Attorney General Walter Mondale, along with Attorney General Edward J. McCormack of Massachusetts, spearheaded an effort of state attorneys general to lend legal support to Gideon's efforts. The Florida attorney general had previously sought advice from his counterparts in other states; several whose states did not provide for poor defendants had shared Florida's opposition. Attorney General Mondale took another view. Mondale argued that it was "fair and feasible" to assure public defense in felony cases. Having discussed the issue with University of Minnesota Law School professor, Yale Kamisar, Mondale shared his opinions with Edward McCormack, and the two elicited the support of twenty-three states. Together they filed an amicus brief that presented direct and powerful arguments in favor of Gideon, among which that Florida's law was out of step with contemporary standards of due process, and that justice could not be dependent upon the ability of defendants to pay for competent representation. In the end, with support from the amicus brief, Gideon won his case.

Commentators have observed with dismay that state attorneys general often oppose increased rights for criminal defendants, and very rarely work on behalf of criminal defendants. This case was very different, marked as it was by Attorney General Mondale's candid and civic-minded belief and action on Gideon's behalf, based on constitutional principle and his own experience as a prosecutor in Minnesota. The law under which Gideon sought protection was found in the Sixth Amendment, the almost 200-year-old text of fundamental law meant to guide American judicial procedure, which was applied to the states through the Fourteenth. After Gideon, the right to counsel would be guaranteed in every state.