Gideon's Trumpet Summary & Study Guide

Anthony Lewis
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Gideon's Trumpet Summary & Study Guide Description

Gideon's Trumpet Summary & Study Guide includes comprehensive information and analysis to help you understand the book. This study guide contains the following sections:

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Clarence Earl Gideon is a fifty-one-year-old white man from the South who believes that he was denied due process of the law because he was not assigned an attorney during his trial in the early 1960s. Gideon, holding to the idea that the Constitution assured him of that right, files a petition with the United States Supreme Court. In fact, the trial courts on the state level are grappling with the question of when a petitioner is to have an attorney. The Gideon case will answer that question once and for all.

The courts are working off a twenty-year-old Supreme Court decision, Betts vs. Brady. In this case, the Justices of the Supreme Court upheld the decision of a lower court by saying that a farmer named Smith Betts of Maryland had not been entitled to an attorney at the time of his trial for robbery. In Maryland, the practice at the time was to appoint an attorney for a person too poor to hire one on his own, but only when he was charged with rape or murder. With that decision, the Supreme Court set a precedent that the defendant of a lesser crime was not entitled to a court-appointed attorney. Then emerged the "special cases" rule that required the appointment of an attorney if the defendant were illiterate, ignorant, suffering a mental disease or facing a complicated case. One of the biggest problems of that special rule is that a person who is not intelligent enough to handle his own trial is also not likely to be able to file an appeal. It's a circuitous issue - the unlearned man who isn't appointed an attorney probably isn't able to file the paperwork for his appeal to argue that he should have had one. Gideon is the exception and it's by sheer tenacity that he succeeds in filing his appeal with the Supreme Court in keeping with their rules.

It's important to understand the social and legal climate of the day. Many appeals are filed on the right to counsel issue, and the Supreme Court has generally agreed with the petitioner prompting retrials in a number of cases. The fact that the Supreme Court can't seem to draw any clear rule on the issue means that lower court outcomes are often overturned. There's a friction between the Supreme and lower courts over the issue and lack of direction. In addition, the United States has seen the results of a racial dictator gone mad in Hitler's persecution of the Jews and the American people are leaning toward the rights of an individual over the rights of the government. Finally, there has been ongoing discussion of federalism vs. states' rights with some people holding to the idea that the states should have the right to determine how to handle their own criminal court system.

When the time comes for state attorneys to make a statement on the issue, the majority who speak out are in favor of the rule that all felony cases are to be assigned an attorney. The rights of the individual, they say, should outweigh the rights of the government. Not only that, but some argue that the fact that a defendant has an attorney of his own means fewer overturns on appeal and that the legal system is more likely to get at the truth of the case with two competent lawyers meeting in the courtroom.

Gideon himself is granted a new trial on his argument that he should have had an attorney. He makes his selection from a local lawyer who is familiar with the area and Gideon is found "not guilt" of robbing a poolroom in Florida. Asked if he thought he'd accomplished something, Gideon notes that he certainly did. The requirement for all defendants to be given an attorney was soon accepted in every state though each of the states established its own way of handling the case loads.

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