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Gideon’s Trumpet by Anthony Lewis

In this book, Anthony Lewis gives a detailed account of the plight of Clarence Earl Gideon. The book is a thrilling account of the United States legal intrigues, appellate law and rights of a convicted person. Anthony Lewis successfully delivers the story of Gideon from hopelessness and disillusionment to judicial success at the highest level of the judicial system (the Supreme Court).

He brings to the fore several fundamental aspects of human existence, like justice for the impoverished and right to legal representation where permissible by the law, regardless of one’s religious background, political inclination, financial status or race.
The book begins with the story of Clarence Earl Gideon’s clamor for justice through legal representation in the lower court during his trial. Gideon is accused of having broken into a pool room and stealing. He is arrested and arraigned in court to face charges.

Gideon is forced to defend himself without an attorney after the court rules that he is not entitled to one. According to the state law of Florida, a person is not entitled to an attorney if his/her offense is deemed not capital and may only get one under very special circumstances. It is, therefore, pretty clear that the lower court did not consider Gideon’s case a capital one or one with special circumstances. Gideon tried his best to defend himself but was unsuccessful. The court found him guilty and sentenced him to a five year imprisonment. The fact that he had four previous convictions also did not help matters. Gideon however never gave up his pursuit of justice while in prison. To Gideon, this was a serious infringement on his rights as enshrined in the constitution and it was against this background that he decided to seek refuge in a higher court. Things were not all rosy to Gideon as he first had to be behind bars as he penciled his appeal to the Supreme Court.

Gideon appealed to the Supreme Court of the United States. His case was originally dubbed Gideon v Cochran because of H.G Cochran who was working in Florida in the department of Corrections at the time. H.G Cochran was later replaced by Wainwright before Gideon’s case had reached the penultimate stage and therefore it was later termed Gideon v Wainwright. The appeal was received by the justices who were to determine whether they would give him a hearing. Luckily for Gideon, the Court decided to give him another chance. His petition was termed in forma pauperis that is a petition where the indigent plaintiff without money would be allowed to petition the Supreme Court freely and file just one copy of the petition instead of the ordinary forty. This allowance was consistent with Court Rule 53. In all this, however, there had to be substantial compliance from the plaintiff. Gideon’s compliance was remarkable as together with his pencil-written appeal was an attached affidavit which was requisite. He also filed the writ of certiorari within the 90 days window that was set for appeals to the Supreme Court. A writ of certiorari is a petition to have your case moved from a lower court to a higher court. In Gideon’s case, he wanted a hearing in the Supreme Court after he felt that his trial at the lower court was unjust. In his petition, Gideon not only sought to challenge the lower court’s decision to sentence him to a five year jail term but also to challenge its decision to deny him an attorney to represent him during the trial.

 

There was also that little issue of the Betts v. Brady case where Justice Roberts had chosen to award Betty an attorney not because his case warranted one, but because he thought denying him one would substantially infringe on his fundamental fairness. This was going to be Gideon’s weapon in this particular case if the law of precedence was anything to go by. The Supreme Court was to now give a verdict on this standoff but first it was imperative that this kind of judicial proceeding be within its jurisdiction as mandated by Article III of the Constitution.

Gideon got a counsel to represent him. This was the very able Abe Fortas. Mr. Abe Fortas was a seasoned lawyer who was well versed with legal proceedings and laws. Fortas hailed from Washington and he worked for the company of Arnold, Fortas and Porter. He mostly mediated between the private sector and the government basically advising the private investors on how to work within the confines of the law as they maximize on the existing good political will. Fortas had his work clearly cut off from the onset. He first had to look through the lower court ruling on this case to be able to build a credible argument before the Supreme Court. He did just that. It was notable to Mr. Fortas why Gideon had lost the case in the first place. Gideon was a novice in legal matters. He missed out on important aspects like cross examining witnesses.

Gideon’s petition almost received a massive blow when Bruce Jacobs, an assistant attorney general representing Florida wrote some messages to the Attorney Generals of the other states to consolidate their support through amicus curiae briefs. Bruce Jacob however, was met with a rude shock after the filing deadline as more than twenty Attorney Generals had sided with Gideon. He was only able to get the support from Georgia and North Carolina. Attorney general Walter F. Mondale of Minnesota was one the attorney who was on the forefront campaign against Jacob’s amicus curiae briefs after learning about his (Jacob’s) position on the issue of right to a representative counsel. Gideon stood trial at the Supreme Court though he had initially asked to be exempted from trial citing the Fifth Amendment’s protection against retrial for the same offense (double jeopardy). Gideon was found innocent and acquitted.

It is important to note that during the rehearing of Gideon’s case, there were two lawyers that were to represent him from ACLU. Tobias Simon was the attorney that was to represent Gideon. He was of the Florida Civil Liberties Union which is a branch of the ACLU. However, Gideon did not fancy the idea of being represented by this Mr. Tobias Simon. He therefore turned him down and the court upheld his decision letting Mr. Fred Turner take over and finish the job successfully.

In this book, Anthony Lewis uses several characters to bring out his subject matter. The role that Gideon is given is the one that really touches me. From the clamor for justice when all seemed lost, to the long judicial process, to the demanding task of being in the court room for the sixth time he was just incredible. He typifies a strong unwavering character that is not so abundant in the modern day prisoner. It is also important to point out that Lewis conveys several themes in his book. Themes like right to justice and fair trial, poverty, the plight of prisoners and judicial Injustices are well brought out. His main theme is right to justice. He takes an in depth look at an impoverished American citizen, Clarence Earl Gideon who is determined to get a fair trial. He is not shaken by the long and tedious legal processes and battles that he has to win to be free.

In a nutshell, Lewis’ understanding of legal terms and procedures is admirable in this book. He gives the reader very good legal background information about all the steps that the courts take and major decisions of the lower court and the Supreme Court. Lewis carves out the role of the court in the American society, that of reinforcing values and traditions of the society and shaping morals. His understanding of the American constitution is top notch. Even top lawyers surely marvel at his ability to interpret law and contextualize it in his book. I, however, feel that Lewis at some point makes the Supreme Court antagonize the lower court. He brings out the feeling that the lower courts do not always deliver justice to the offended. He would have done better in that regard. This book is a must read for everyone who is passionate about the law and its application in the United States of America. It also offers very good insight about state laws verses federal government laws.

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