Gideon and Habeas Corpus: The Evolution of Justice in a Post-Teague, Post-AEDPA World

Georgina Yeomans

On May 13, 2015, the Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing, with bipartisan support, on proposals to protect the right to counsel for indigent defendants charged with misdemeanors. While this unity in favor of expanding the right to counsel for indigent defendants is encouraging for criminal justice reform advocates, providing defendants with counsel won’t mean much if Congress and the Court continue to impede defendants’ ability to challenge their convictions and to urge judicial evolution on criminal justice matters.

Fifty-two years have passed since the Court’s decision in Gideon v. Wainwright guaranteed counsel to indigent defendants facing state felony charges. The fiftieth anniversary, in 2013, prompted significant discussion about how Gideon’s promise has gone unfulfilled, as Congress and state governments have not adequately funded the offices tasked with carrying out the Court’s mandate. But also disconcerting, and left largely unmentioned by these critiques, is that access to justice has been greatly restricted in other ways since Gideon’s time. Specifically, the right to be heard on a petition for a writ of habeas corpus has been restricted—by the 1989 case Teague v. Lane and by the 1996 Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act—to the point that, had those rules applied in 1963, Gideon may not have happened.

I.    Gideon’s Claim

Clarence Earl Gideon was convicted of breaking into a poolroom with the intent to commit a misdemeanor[1] in the Circuit Court of Bay County, Florida.[2] Gideon was denied counsel to assist him at trial. Upon conviction, Gideon did not file an appeal, but rather filed a petition for habeas corpus directly with the Florida Supreme Court. That court summarily denied his petition,[3] so he petitioned for a writ of certiorari to the United States Supreme Court.[4] Bypassing the appeal and opting for a habeas corpus petition was permitted under Florida law at the time, and therefore the Supreme Court was free to grant or deny Gideon’s petition. The Court opted to hear his case and took the opportunity to overrule the decision in Betts v. Brady[5] that had limited the right to counsel in state criminal trials to defendants who presented exceptional circumstances.[6]

Luckily for Gideon, the Court had not yet handed down Teague v. Lane, nor had Congress passed the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, both of which would have presented significant obstacles to Gideon’s claim.

II.    The Shifting Legal Landscape


The first obstacle to Gideon’s relief is the Court’s 1989 decision in Teague v. Lane,[7] which held that “habeas corpus cannot be used as a vehicle to create new constitutional rules of criminal procedure unless those rules” fall into one of two categories.[8] Those categories are (1) a rule establishing that the underlying criminal conduct is constitutionally protected, or (2) a new rule of criminal procedure that implicates the fundamental fairness of the defendant’s trial, diminishing the likelihood of an accurate conviction.[9] Since Teague, the Court has never found a new criminal procedure rule worthy of retroactive application.[10]

There is no doubt that the decision in Gideon announced a new rule: After Gideon, all indigent criminal defendants facing felony convictions were entitled to counsel. If Teague had applied in 1963, Gideon would have had to convince the Justices that failure to provide him counsel undermined the fairness of his trial and diminished the likelihood that he was accurately convicted. With the benefit of hindsight, it seems clear that Gideon’s claim fit this description. However, the legal landscape in which Gideon presented his claim was one in which counsel was not guaranteed. Indeed, as noted above, Gideon’s case did not present special circumstances that the Court had previously recognized as undermining the fairness of his trial. Given the novelty of the rule established in Gideon and the Teague Court’s reluctance to establish new rules of criminal procedure on habeas corpus, it is far from clear that a Court bound by Teague would have reached the decision in Gideon.


The second temporal obstacle to Gideon’s claim is the 1996 Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA), which greatly restricted prisoners’ ability to bring habeas corpus claims in federal court. It imposed, among other restrictions, a one-year statute of limitations on bringing habeas claims,[11] codified the Supreme Court’s requirement that petitioners exhaust all state court remedies before presenting their claims to federal courts,[12] and limited federal habeas relief to situations in which the state court not only misapplied federal law, but did so in a manner that was contrary to, or an unreasonable interpretation of, federal law.[13] It is this last restriction that would have affected Gideon’s petition. The Supreme Court has clarified that the “unreasonable interpretation” restriction in AEDPA means that the Supreme Court may only review a state court’s decision on the merits when the state court applied clearly established federal law in an objectively unreasonable manner, not simply in an incorrect manner.[14]

Had AEDPA applied in 1963, Gideon would have had to convince the Supreme Court that the Florida Supreme Court’s decision that his rights had not been violated by denial of counsel was an unreasonable application of Betts v. Brady. Notably, Betts only required counsel where failure to do so would result in a trial “offensive to the common and fundamental ideas of fairness and right.”[15] While it is impossible to know with certainty how the Supreme Court would react to Gideon’s claim today, it is clear that denying him a lawyer under Betts was not an unreasonable application of governing federal law. In his comprehensive account of Gideon’s case, Anthony Lewis writes that it was plain to Abe Fortas, who was appointed to represent Gideon before the Supreme Court, that “Gideon had not suffered from any of the special circumstances that would have entitled him to a lawyer under the limited rule of Betts v. Brady.”[16] Under Lewis’s account, not only did the Florida Supreme Court act reasonably, but it acted in perfect compliance with then-binding Supreme Court precedent, meaning relitigation of Gideon’s claim would have been barred by AEDPA had the statute been in place in 1963.


The legal landscape around habeas corpus claims has become increasingly hostile to the type of claim Gideon presented. The Court’s decision in Teague in 1989 curtailed the instances in which the Court will announce new rules on a habeas corpus petition, as it did in Gideon. Then in 1996, AEDPA severely restricted the Court’s authority to relitigate state court decisions on habeas corpus. Had either of these developments been in effect in 1963, it is at least fathomable that Gideon would not have found relief. And while Congress’s renewed commitment to strengthening Gideon’s promise is heartening, Congress should also consider the effect that limited access to federal court has on the administration of justice. If it is harder for criminal defendants to present claims of unconstitutional procedure to the Court, and if it is harder for the Court to receive those claims, the law will not develop in a way that promotes fairness and justice. While guaranteeing representation to all criminal defendants may reduce some of the injustices they face, it will not make up for the fact that criminal defendants are extremely limited in their ability to challenge their convictions and to argue for modifications to the law.

[1] 372 U.S. 335, 336 (1963).

[2] Anthony Lewis, Gideon’s Trumpet 44 (1964).

[3] Gideon v. Cochran, 135 So. 2d 746 (Fla. 1961).

[4] Lewis, supra note 2, at 22.

[5] 316 U.S. 455, 473 (1942).

[6] 372 U.S. at 339.

[7] 489 U.S. 288, 316 (1989).

[8] Id. at 316.

[9] Id. at 313.

[10] Erwin Chemerinsky, Federal Jurisdiction 975 (6th ed. 2012).

[11] 28 U.S.C. § 2244.

[12] 28 U.S.C. § 2254(b).

[13] 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d)(1).

[14] Williams v. Taylor, 529 U.S. 362 (2000). See also Yarborough v. Alvarado, 541 U.S. 652, 664 (2004) (“The more general the rule, the more leeway courts have in reaching outcomes in case-by-case determinations.”).

[15] 316 U.S. 455, 473 (1942). The Florida Supreme Court’s summary dismissal of Gideon’s petition would not excuse Gideon’s burden of showing the decision was unreasonable. Harrington v. Richter, 562 U.S. 86, 100 (2011).

[16] Lewis, supra note 2, at 62.

Leave a Reply