In 1961, Clarence Earl Gideon was arrested in Florida and charged with breaking and entering a poolroom with intent to commit petty larceny. Gideon was an indigent and thus unable to afford counsel. At his trial in a Florida state court, he asked the judge to appoint an attorney to represent him. The judge refused to do so because under Florida law at that time, an indigent accused of a crime was entitled to the assistance of counsel provided by the state only if charged with a capital offense. Under U.S. constitutional law at that time, as enunciated by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1942 in Betts v. Brady, a state was only required to appoint counsel for an indigent accused if the accused was a victim of “special circumstances” such as feeblemindedness, illiteracy, youth, etc. Gideon did not claim to be a victim with “special circumstances.”
Gideon defended himself to the best of his ability, but a six-man jury found him guilty, and he was sentenced to five years in jail. He obtained law books and prepared an appeal to the Florida Supreme Court. After losing there, he prepared a handwritten petition asking the U.S. Supreme Court to consider his appeal. The Supreme Court agreed to do so. Gideon also asked the Court’s permission to proceed in forma pauperis (as a pauper). In such cases, if the Court grants permission, as it did in Gideon’s case, among other things, it appoints counsel to represent the accused before the Court. In Gideon’s case, the Court appointed Abe Fortas, who would join the Supreme Court in 1965, as his attorney.