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Qwiz5 Quizbowl Essentials –Gideon v. Wainwright

Gideon v. Wainwright was a landmark 20th-century Supreme Court case with an inauspicious beginning. Clarence Earl Gideon was arrested in Florida in 1961 for breaking and entering and sentenced to five years in prison without legal representation during his trial. Although Gideon didn’t know much about the law at his first hearing, he used his time in prison to study up. His petition focused on the failure of the Florida court to provide him with an attorney despite his indigent status. Gideon’s case found sympathy with the Supreme Court, and ruled unanimously that all individuals accused of a felony should have legal representation.

By analyzing questions, you can see patterns emerge, patterns that will help you answer questions. Qwiz5 is all about those patterns. In each installment of Qwiz5, we take an answer line and look at its five most common clues. Here we explore five clues that will help you answer a tossup on Gideon v. Wainwright.


Gideon tried his hand at a variety of odd jobs over the years, but he was also involved in petty crime from an early age. In 1961 he was arrested for attempting to break into a pool hall in Panama City, Florida. Although Gideon could not afford a lawyer, Florida law dictated that only indigent individuals who had been accused of a capital crime were entitled to legal representation. Attempting to represent himself in court, Gideon failed miserably and lost the case.


In 1932’s Powell v. Alabama the Supreme Court extended the right-to-counsel guarantee of the 6th Amendment to state criminal proceedings. However, this extension under the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment was limited in scope. A group of 9 African-American males, the Scottsboro Boys, were sentenced to death for allegedly raping two white women. The teens were not informed of their rights and barely had a chance to meet their attorneys before sentencing was passed. The Supreme Court ruled that in capital cases defendants were guaranteed access to competent counsel.


Ten years later Betts v. Brady, indicated the limits of the right to counsel. The facts of the case were very similar: Smith Betts was arrested for robbery in Maryland and, unable to afford an attorney, requested unsuccessfully for the court to appoint one. The Supreme Court ruled 6-3 against Betts, and Justice Owen Roberts wrote that right-to-counsel could not be guaranteed in non-capital offenses except in certain extenuating circumstances.


1963 was a big year for criminal law advocacy. The Supreme Court decided not just Gideon v. Wainwright but Miranda v. Arizona as well. In this 5-4 decision the Supreme Court ruled that an arrested individual needed to be informed of their right to remain silent as well as their right to an attorney when arrested. These rights were known as an individual’s Miranda rights.


Attorney Abe Fortas represented Gideon before the Supreme Court. Fortas would later go on to join the Supreme Court himself, serving from 1965-1969 until ethics violations forced him to resign.


Quizbowl is about learning, not rote memorization, so we encourage you to use this as a springboard for further reading rather than as an endpoint. Here are a few things to check out:

  • Want more details about Gideon v. Wainwright? Visit this website for an overview of the case, including the oral arguments.

  • We know the name Gideon v. Wainwright, but many of us may not know much about the man behind the name. Check out this biographical information on Clarence Earl Gideon.

  • The Smithsonian has a fascinating page on The Scottsboro Nine, the young men at the center of Powell v. Alabama.

  • Supreme Court Justices come with a history of their own. Learn more about the checkered past of Justice Hugo Black, who wrote the opinion on Gideon v. Wainwright, here:


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