Defending Gideon

50th Anniversary of Gideon v. Wainwright

The United States Supreme Court’s  landmark decision in Gideon v. Wainwright, on March 18, 1963, inspired hope that the nation’s criminal justice system would provide equal and just treatment for the poor, along with the rich. Declaring that the Constitution required the government to appoint a lawyer for those who could not otherwise afford one, Gideon laid the groundwork for fairer criminal trials. Yet states continue to fail to provide independent and well-resourced lawyers.  The quality of justice in America continues to depend as much on one’s bank account as it does on one’s guilt or innocence.

Gideon cover artDefending Gideon

Fifty years ago, Clarence Earl Gideon was charged with breaking into a pool hall.  He could not afford a lawyer to defend him in court, and after a hasty trial, he was convicted.  Had Gideon accepted his fate, he’d have been imprisoned for five years.  But Gideon did challenge his conviction —all the way to the Supreme Court.   The result was the landmark case Gideon v. Wainwright, which guarantees poor defendants the right to counsel in criminal cases.  Weaving the story of this iconic case with contemporary portraits of legal injustice, the film DEFENDING GIDEON highlights the importance of a system that guarantees representation for all—and the dire consequences when that system fails.

– It’s time to finish what he started 50 years ago –

© 2013 The Constitution Project. All Rights Reserved.
A New Media Advocacy Project Film


This documentary film was made possible by generous support from

Ford Foundation
Arnold & Porter LLP

Covington & Burling, LLP     Kirkland & Ellis, LLP     Law Firm of Jones Day     Latham & Watkins, LLP
Simon & Partners, LLP       The Zitrin Foundation

We encourage people to use the film as a public education tool. Anyone is welcome to screen or stream the film for public showings. For more information or to order a dvd, contact Brian Yourish at

Other Resources

Justice Denied: America’s Continuing Neglect of Our Constitutional Right to Counsel

Defending Gideon Event Toolkit

Defending Gideon Lesson Plan, created by the Street Law Clinic at Georgetown University Law Center

So you want to learn more about the Gideon case?, by Andrew Cohen

How Americans lost the right to counsel 50 years after ‘Gideon’, by Andrew Cohen

Gideon at 50: Site devoted to the 50th anniversary of Gideon v. Wainwright, featuring Defending Gideon video.

“Gideon’s Army” follows Travis Williams, Brandy Alexander and June Hardwick, three young public defenders who are part of a small group of idealistic lawyers in the Deep South challenging the assumptions that drive a criminal justice system strained to the breaking point. Backed by mentor Jonathan “Rap” Rapping, a charismatic leader who heads the Southern Public Defender Training Center, they struggle against long hours, low pay and staggering caseloads so common that even the most committed often give up in their first year. Nearly 50 years since the landmark Supreme Court ruling Gideon vs. Wainwright that established the right to counsel, can these courageous lawyers revolutionize the way America thinks about indigent defense and make “justice for all” a reality? Official selection 2013 Sundance Film Festival, winner Editing Award: US Documentary. An HBO Documentary Films presentation. Produced by Trilogy Films in association with Motto Pictures with funding provided by the Ford Foundation.

Chasing Gideon, by Karen Houppert
On the fiftieth anniversary of Gideon v . Wainwright, veteran journalist Karen Houppert investigates the way justice is delivered to the poor—and discovers a crisis in our nation’s courts.

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