Gideon’s Trumpet – How the US Supreme Court Really Works

Image“If an obscure Florida convict named Clarence Earl Gideon had not sat down in prison with a pencil and paper to write a letter to the Supreme Court, and if the Supreme Court had not taken the trouble to look for merit in that one crude petition among all the bundles of mail it must receive every day, 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 he was retried with the help of a competent defense counsel, found not guilty, and released from prison after two years of punishment for a crime he did not commit, and the whole course of American legal history has been changed.”

Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy
November 11, 1963

(Connecticut Department of Public Defender Services web site; (Pure and utter bullshit; see below)

I begin this paper citing the remarkable summary by then Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy of the Supreme Court case that became known as Gideon v. Wainright, 372 U.S. 335 (1963).  The movie Gideon’s Trumpet (1980), is an adaptation of the book by the same title by Anthony Lewis (1965). ( and  By way of an introduction, far be it from me to write better than our late Attorney General.

The plot of the book and the movie centers on the idea of justice.  In the United States, are the rights of an indigent person the same as a person of means?  In the Unites States, is justice denied to a person who, just because he is poor, is forced to defend himself in a criminal court case?  In the United States, is it just and right for a barely literate person to be made to rely on his own initiative to get his case heard in the highest court of the land?

As depicted in the movie by Henry Fonda, Clarence Earl Gideon was a nobody.  He was a convicted felon.  He was in the wrong place at the wrong time when the Bay Harbor Pool Room of Panama City, Florida, was burglarized.  Gideon was charged with the crime.  He asked the judge to appoint a lawyer for him because he could not afford one.  The judge, citing Florida law, denied Gideon’s request.  Gideon defended himself at trial and was convicted of the crime and sentenced to 5 years in prison.  While in prison, Gideon educated himself and appealed to the Florida Supreme Court.  His appeal was denied.  He then, by hand written writ of certiorari to the United States Supreme Court, appealed his conviction on the grounds that he was not represented by counsel as he had requested.

The movie shows how in the 1960’s cases find there way before the Supreme Court.  It shows how the Court decides upon which cases to hear.  It shows how the personal efforts of single Justices of the Supreme Court and their political motivations are at play in circumstances that have much wider impact on the country.  The movie uses the humble Florida court room and the grand US Supreme Court hearing room as a metaphor for the little man’s fight against the big government.  In a plot twist, the grand US Supreme Court becomes the champion for the little man whose government had condemned him because he couldn’t afford a lawyer.  It is ironic that, after one of the most well-known and well-respected lawyers of the day, Abe Fortas, who was then Vice President Lyndon Johnson’s personal attorney, successfully argued Gideon’s case before the Supreme Court, Gideon rejected two ACLU attorneys suggested by Fortas in favor of a local lawyer, W. Fred Turner (who was an acquaintance of our then Vice President, I speculate).  Fred Turner successfully defended Gideon and he was found not guilty in his second trial and left the courtroom a free man.

One sad part of the movie, in my view, is how the “higher legal principles” overshadow the real-life circumstances of Gideon and the other people involved.  The Chief Justice supposedly doesn’t know any particulars about the case as it is present for a vote on whether or not to here the case before the rest of the Court.  Abe Fortas supposedly doesn’t even know if his client is black or white following his appointment as Gideon’s appeals lawyer.  The rich and powerful concern themselves with higher principles while the lowly suffer the consequences of their principled decisions.  Over 2,000 Florida inmates went free as a result of the Gideon decision.  The government that wrongfully incarcerated them is the same government that ultimately set them free.  Constitutional law is messy business and the consequences of decisions concerning the little guy often have much larger repercussions elsewhere.  Ours is the worst form of government on earth, except for all the others!

Incidentally, during the 1960 presidential election, Florida went to Nixon in the Electoral College.  Gideon and the resulting release of over 2,000 felons in Florida was Kennedy payback for Florida not getting in line behind the candidate in the 1960 election.  (

Despite miscasting Henry Fonda in the role of Gideon (Fonda was 75 at the time and Gideon was 53 at the time of his second trial (, Fonda does a nice job representing the curmudgeonly Gideon.  Americans love “a little guy triumphs over the big guy” plots.  The government has enormous power as compared to the average citizen.  The government controls the systems by which we must live to be “good” citizens.  The government has the power to tax us, charge us, convict us and incarcerate us.  The government has resources available to it that dwarf those of even the richest persons.  Nevertheless, one little man, whose principles would not let the injustice stand for his conviction for a crime he did not commit, fought back against the government and won.  David beat Goliath because “right” was on his side (total bullshit!).

The reality is somewhat different.  Two members of the Gideon Supreme Court who joined in vehement dissent to the Betts v. Brady Supreme Court decision, 316 U.S. 455, 1942, and the cases that followed, still had a very bad taste in their mouths.  (Justices Hugo Black, William O. Douglas; see US Supreme Court web site,  These Justices, and other liberals on the Court (Gideon was decided 9 to 0) were on the lookout for a case they could use to reverse Betts v. Brady and Gideon was the case that best fit that agenda.  (I wonder whether or not Gideon had a little help from the outside in drafting his writ of certiorari and in getting his case in front of the Supreme Court!)

The book’s author, Anthony Lewis, is a flaming liberal.  He was a great friend of the aforementioned late Attorney General!  Not that it’s relevant here, but he is married to retired Chief Justice Margaret Marshall of the Massachusetts Supreme Court.  Her court created the right to gay marriage out of whole cloth and single handedly cost John Kerry the presidential election of 2004!  Anthony Lewis, in his days as an editor with The New York Times championed every left wing/communist cause ever faced by the citizens of the United   States. (  In my opinion, the guy’s a nut!  That notwithstanding, Lewis wrote an award winning book he entitled based on the Book of Judges on the Gideon v. Wainright case.  The sinister back story here, and this is just a matter of my speculation, is that Lewis was the moving force behind Gideon.  He prompted Gideon and provided assistance in writing the writ of certiorari, money and influence to get the case before the Court.  I suspect that Lewis was hired by persons sitting on the Court as Justices and by the Kennedy’s to find the case they could use to overturn Betts.  His reward was the inside scoop on the story for his book that sold 800,000 copies to date.  (  The movie gives us the impression that a law clerk working for the Chief Justice just happened upon Gideon’s writ.  This is pure Hollywood fantasy!!!  Gideon was a set up from the get-go as are most of the landmark cases that come before the Court.

The intended result of Gideon was the exponential growth of the public defender offices throughout the United States and the phenomenal growth of law school enrollment and cost over the last 50 years.  This was a blatant act by the Court to ensure full employment for fellow lawyers at the expense of the American taxpayer.  The conviction rates for publically defended criminals are about the same today as it was before Gideon, but thousands upon thousands of lawyers who would otherwise be greeters at Walmart are employed at the taxpayers’ expense.

In the American system of politics, what forces cannot win through the legislature, they will try to win through the courts.  This is clearly a case where an activist Court did an end-run around the state legislatures to bring about the result the forces demanded; i.e., court appointed lawyers for all poor people.  This doesn’t bother me.  It’s a political system that, with the exception perhaps, of Roe v. Wade, 410 U.S. 113 (1973) (which came before the Supreme Court the same way Gideon did, I speculate), works for the greater good of the average citizen.  The results justify the means in these cases.

I conclude by writing that Clarence Earl Gideon died in 1972 ( as anonymously as he would have otherwise had lived.  A drifter, a loser, a little guy, who was used to the advantage of the big guys who wanted to change the criminal justice system and create tens of thousands of new jobs for lawyers.  I’m sure Clarence Earl Gideon never realized how well he was played.  He looked at Anthony Lewis’ proposition as a way of getting out of jail a few years early.  He gave up “three hots and a cot” for a chance at legal immortality and won.  At the end of the movie, Gideon had to borrow money to get on with his life.  He was born, lived and died a loser.  I’m sure he died not knowing of how much he did to embellish the American system of jurisprudence.  I’m sure he died not knowing just how well he was used as a pawn by the powerful.

The result of Gideon:  All accused persons have the right to counsel – which today means from the moment of legal custody until the last appeal.  The US Supreme Court writes the decisions it wants to write.  (It has always done so and it is as corrupt as any other branch of government.)  I think everybody should have at least one lawyer as a golf buddy.  The Supreme Court looks out first and foremost for its own; the benefits to the citizenry are secondary.  Not bad for a “made for TV” movie!!!

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2 Responses to Gideon’s Trumpet – How the US Supreme Court Really Works

  1. Rhonda W. says:

    It disgusts me that you think Roe v Wade did not work to benefit the greater good of the average citizen. Tell that to the 1 in 4 women who experience rape at least once in their lifetimes. Do they really deserve to forever live with the reminder of the worst moment in their lives?

    • You obviously can’t read with your head in the “abortion-on-demand-at-taxpayer-expense” blinders. That wasn’t the point of my article at all but you are of the ilk whose ends justify whatever means including unconstitutional means. 25% of women do not experience rape in their lifetimes. Abortions because of rape amount to less than 1 tenth of 1 percent of all abortions. Most abortions are because women have forgotten how to say “no” and regret getting knocked up by one of their many Romeos. Most can’t figure out who to sue for child support so it’s less hassle to off the kid. The most dangerous place in America today is in the womb. Over 50 million American children have been thrown in the trash since Roe v. Wade. That is not for the greater good of any society. Thanks for your comment, though, stupid as it was.

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