During the 1962 Term, the Supreme Court, on a single Monday, announced six decisions concerned with constitutional limitations upon state criminal procedure. The most publicized of these, though probably not the most important in terms of legal theory or practical effect, was Gideon v. Wainwright. In an era of constantly expanding federal restrictions on state criminal processes,' the holding of Gideon-that an indigent defendant in a state criminal prosecution has an unqualified right to the appointment of counsel - was hardly startling. And while Gideon will obviously have an important effect in the handful of states that still fail to appoint counsel at the trial level, it has probably caused far less alarm among prosecutors than its sister decisions that relaxed the prerequisites for obtaining a federal writ of habeas corpus and imposed a requirement that states also provide counsel on appeals. What distinguished Gideon-and what attracted the attention of the press-was that the result there reached overruled an important prior decision of the Court. Betts v. Brady, decided in 1942, had held that the Due Process cause of the Fourteenth Amendment did not impose upon the states, as the Sixth Amendment imposed upon the federal government, an absolute requirement to appoint counsel for all indigent defendants in criminal cases. It required the states to provide an attorney only where the particular circumstances of a case indicated that the absence of counsel would result in a trial lacking "fundamental fairness." In Gideon, the Court explicitly rejected the Betts rule and held that the "Sixth Amendment's [unqualified] guarantee of counsel for all indigent defendants" is a "fundamental right . . . made obligatory upon the States by the Fourteenth Amendment." Gideon thus joined the ranks of a rather select group of cases. For, despite its widespread reputation as a Court most ready to "disregard precedent and overrule its own earlier decisions," the Supreme Court in fact has directly overruled prior decisions on no more than a hundred occasions in over a century and a half of judicial review. And only about half of these instances involved cases, like Gideon, in which the Court was dealing with a constitutional question.
Publication Information & Recommended Citation
Israel, Jerold H. "Gideon v. Wainwright: The Art of Overruling." In The Supreme Court and the Judicial Functions, edited by P. B. Kurland, 73-134. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1971.