Document Type

Article

Publication Date

2014

Abstract

Gideon v. Wainwright is more than a “landmark” Supreme Court ruling in the field of constitutional criminal procedure. As evidenced by the range of celebrators of Gideon’s Fiftieth Anniversary (extending far beyond the legal academy) and Gideon’s inclusion in the basic coverage of high school government courses, Gideon today is an icon of the American justice system. I have no quarrel with that iconic status, but I certainly did not see any such potential in Gideon when I analyzed the Court’s ruling shortly after it was announced in March of 1963. I had previously agreed to write an article for the Supreme Court Review’s coverage of the Court’s 1962–63 term. Phillip Kurland, the Review’s editor, made Gideon my assignment, noting that the Court during that term had decided numerous constitutional criminal procedure cases and Gideon clearly was the most prominent of those rulings. As my research progressed, I came to the conclusion that Gideon was more significant as a case study in the crafting of an opinion that overruled a previous decision (Gideon had overruled Betts v. Brady) than as a contribution to the field of constitutional criminal procedure. Indeed, as I noted in the introduction to my article on Gideon and the “art of overruling,” Gideon appeared to have less doctrinal and practical significance than two other criminal procedure rulings decided on the same day—Douglas v. California and Fay v. Noia. This Essay recounts the analysis that led me to view Gideon in 1963 as an important, but limited, decision—certainly not one destined to be an all-time landmark ruling.