As a civics and history teacher, I use this film as the cornerstone of my unit on the functioning of the U.S. Supreme Court (SCOTUS), and I encourage anyone who wants a better and clearer understanding of exactly how the SCOTUS works. The most important case in US history is Marbury vs. Madison (judicial review), but the PERFECT case is the surprisingly little known Gideon vs. Wainwright of 1963. If anyone reading this knows any student who is or will be studying the SCOTUS, I promise they will be well served by watching this marvelous film.
Clarence Earl Gideon, a four time convict in his late fifties, was arrested on suspicion of breaking and entering into the Bay Harbor pool room in Panama City, Florida. There was a witness to the break-in, and a fair amount of good circumstantial evidence that reasonably tied Gideon to the crime. Gideon was a poor man, and could not afford a lawyer, so he asked for one to be provided. At that time (1961) in US history, each state had the power to decide when it had to spend the money to allocate defense lawyers to indigent defendants according to the 6th and 14th amendments, as previously decided in 1942 by the case of Betts vs. Brady. Many states maintained that a simple man could defend himself in a simple case. Florida declined to provide an attorney, and predictably, Gideon was convicted and sentenced to a 5 year term in state prison.
Gideon believed his rights had been violated, and ultimately petitioned the SCOTUS with a writ of certiorari to be freed. Herein lies the perfection of this particular case as a model to teach about the judicial branch’s highest court. Federal judges HATE it when an ambitious attorney attempts to make a sweeping change in broad constitutional law at the expense of their client’s case. An attorney is required to look for any special circumstance or condition that might have been a factor in the previous unwelcome decision or conviction. Perhaps Gideon was incompetent or stupid, and therefore unable to defend himself? This was the Deep South in the 1960’s, perhaps race was a factor? Was the judge cruel or the prosecuting attorney unethical? Was Gideon illiterate? Was there any special reason at all to separate Gideon from the general pool of average men? No – there was no special circumstances at all, leaving the SCOTUS with the simple question of whether it was possible or fair for an average man to defend himself in court without the assistance of counsel. Therefore, the SCOTUS decided that the case was enough of basic and fundamental point of law that it worthy of their consideration – many people do not understand that the SCOTUS has the right to decide whether it wants to hear a case or not. The Court might have simply decided to reverse or uphold the original decision in its closed meetings, but it decided that this point of law was worthy of a formal rearguing in open court, and the case was duly scheduled as Gideon vs. Wainwright in 1963.
After some good arguments that it WAS fair and some brilliant ones that it was not (made by Gideon’s court appointed attorney for the SCOTUS, future Justice Abe Fortas), SCOTUS reversed its 1942 decision and unanimously ruled that a criminal defendant was entitled to a lawyer if he could not provide one for himself.
The case would no less significant or perfectly instructive but it WOULD be less dramatic if Gideon had lost his subsequent retrial. Happily, it was conclusively proven at the second trial that Gideon was innocent and that the lying eyewitness was in fact guilty of the crime. Gideon’s first act as a free man was to go buy a beer at the pool hall.
The film is based on the book of two-time Pulitzer Prize winning Journalist Anthony Lewis, which should certainly be read by anyone wanting a perfect understanding of the function of the Court. The film was a 1980 made for TV drama starring Henry Fonda, José Ferrer, John Houseman, and Fay Wray – all of whom five magnificent understated performances. The pacing is superb, and the thoughtful drama rolls elegantly, leaving us with a film that is equally educational and entertaining.
IMDB entry - http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0080789/
The book and film’s wiki - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gideon%27s_Trumpet
The Author’s wiki - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anthony_Lewis
1942 Betts v Brady case law - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Betts_v._Brady
1963 Gideon v Wainwright case law - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gideon_v._Wainwright
Official SCOTUS homepage - http://www.supremecourtus.gov/index.html
***NOTE*** - Occasionally, I will bother to upload a film as a burnable DVD, in order to assist other educators. Since this film SHOULD be shown to all American History students, I will upload this film both as an .AVI file, and as a DVD. There are no special features, so most users should choose the smaller .AVI file.