Essay about Gideon's Trumpet by Anthony Lewis

Essay about Gideon's Trumpet by Anthony Lewis

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For more than a dozen years, Clarence Earl Gideon lay buried in a nondescript, unmarked grave in Hannibal, Missouri. Most Americans outside of the legal community (and many within it) would neither recognize Gideon's name, nor understand the seismic impact he had on our legal system. Fortunately, Anthony Lewis, the renowned journalist now retired from The New York Times, chronicled Gideon's saga from the filing of his hand-written petition for writ of certiorari with the Supreme Court to the momentous decision of March 18, 1963. Lewis brings to life the story of the man behind the case, the legal machinations of the court appointed lawyer (and others working with him) toiling on Gideon's behalf and the inner-workings of the Supreme Court. By telling the story, Lewis has preserved an important piece of legal and social history and we are all the richer for his doing so.

First published in 1964, Gideon's Trumpet is a timeless treatment of one man's passionate quest to right a perceived wrong and his unfailing belief that when the Constitution's Sixth Amendment declared he had a right to counsel, the Constitution meant what it said. What he sought, really, was justice. Of course, Gideon's quest was not his alone after the petition was granted, and it did not take place in a vacuum, but without his belief that the right to counsel had meaning for even the destitute, change would likely have taken significantly longer.

Clarence Gideon had spent a considerable portion of his adult life in and out of prisons. While he could not fairly be characterized as a professional criminal, or violent person, he never really adjusted to mainstream life. As Lewis puts it, "[T]hose who had known him, even the men who had arrested him and those...


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...arl Gideon had not sat down in his prison cell . . . to write a letter to the Supreme Court . . . the vast machinery of American law would have gone on functioning undisturbed. But Gideon did write that letter, the Court did look into his case . . . and the whole course of American legal history has been changed."

In 1984, nearly thirteen years after he was laid to rest in the unmarked grave in Hannibal, Missouri, the Eastern Missouri chapter of the ACLU placed a marker on Clarence Gideon's grave. The marker reads, "Each era finds an improvement in law for the benefit of mankind." Those eternal words are a fitting tribute to an ordinary American who believed in justice and pursued it with a passion. Gideon's Trumpet is an interesting and well written recognition of that man and reminds us that there are those rare times when one person can be a catalyst for change.

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