Academic journal article Iowa Law Review

An Introduction to Fifty Years of Gideon

Academic journal article Iowa Law Review

An Introduction to Fifty Years of Gideon

Article excerpt


Two years ago, the Iowa Law Review marked the twenty-fifth anniversary of Batson v. Kentucky's landmark ban on race-based peremptory jury challenges with a remarkable symposium issue.1 Shortly thereafter, while teaching criminal procedure, I reached the right to counsel chapter, which opens with the Supreme Court's ruling in Gideon v. Wainwright.2 The realization that Gideon would arrive at the half-century milestone brought inspiration. Surely, Gideon had also earned a scholarly event commemorating its special anniversary.

Fortunately, Dean Gail Agrawal was more than supportive. She enthusiastically urged me to follow through. Gail's unflagging encouragement doubled my determination. Once the Iowa Law Review editors eagerly jumped on board, agreeing to sponsor the celebration, the dream of this symposium became a certainty. That certainty took flight this past October when the Review hosted a gathering of right-to-counsel scholars. This volume is the tangible fruit of the provocative presentations at that assembly.

The Supreme Court's fifty-year-old decision in Gideon v. Wainwright is an icon in the annals of constitutional criminal procedure that has weathered the test of time. It is among a small number of Warren Court rulings in that field widely known to lawyers, law students, and, indeed, to many outside the legal profession and academy. Gideon has become an integral part of our national fabric. I have devoted considerable scholarly attention to the right to the assistance of counsel that is Gideon's foundation. It is with enormous pleasure that I pen this introduction to the symposium celebrating its golden anniversary.

The goal here is to set the stage for the insightful reflections of the symposium participants. Although Gideon inspired this symposium, we did not limit submissions to the topic at the core of Gideon-appointed counsel for indigent defendants. Instead, we entertained proposals pertaining to any facet of the right to legal assistance. Readers will learn many and varied lessons about that fundamental guarantee. Several pieces do center around issues raised by Gideon's extension of appointed assistance. A number of others focus on questions generated by the significant ruling in Strickland v. Washington, more than two decades later.3 Strickland explained that the right to counsel encompasses an entitlement to effective assistance and announced a doctrinal framework for assessing constitutional efficacy. This introduction addresses those two basic topics: an indigent defendant's right to state-funded legal aid and every accused's entitlement to effective counsel. First, it summarizes the law prior to Gideon, highlights the ruling in Gideon, and sketches the post-Gideon developments regarding appointed counsel. Next, it turns to the pre-Strickland law, describes the Strickland opinion, and recounts the evolution of ineffectiveness doctrine for the past thirty years.


Gideon is unquestionably the most renowned and significant Supreme Court decision regarding the government's obligation to ensure that criminal defendants financially unable to retain lawyers have access to legal assistance, but it was not the first such ruling. Over three decades before Gideon, the Justices issued an oft-quoted opinion in Powell v. Alabama, emphasizing the vital nature of the counsel entitlement and ruling that the Due Process Clause guaranteed state-funded counsel for at least some indigent state defendants.4 Not long thereafter, and fully twenty-five years before Gideon, the Court unanimously held, in Johnson v. Zerbst, that the express Sixth Amendment right to assistance includes a general promise of appointed counsel for indigent defendants in federal trials.5 Four years later, the Justices ruled that the due process entitlement to appointed assistance in state courts was not as broad. …

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