TURES COLUMN: When ‘Florida man’ helped defend our rights, 60 years ago

Published 10:30 am Tuesday, September 6, 2022

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The term “Florida Man,” is often used as a derisive reference to a male resident of the Sunshine State.  But sixty years ago, a “Florida Man,” Clarence Earl Gideon, changed the course of history with a pen, prison stationary, and a determination to fight for his, and our, Constitutional Rights.

Back in 1961, Gideon was arrested, accused of breaking into a Panama City pool hall, destroying a cigarette machine, and leaving the business with money from the machine and the cash register, and some booze. At his trial, the judge asked where his attorney was. When Gideon insisted he was too poor to afford one, and asked for one, he was denied by the judge, who ordered him to begin his defense. Outclassed by the prosecutor who was already prepared with a case file, Gideon was sentenced to five years in prison.

“Florida Man” refers to an Internet Meme sensation and has led to a series of news reports (the New York Post even has a best list of the exploits of Florida Man). There’s a Twitter account too, and even an TV show I am told, as well as many pop culture references. Typically, the Florida Man from the stories is typically white, and engages in an act that is either violent or involves a serious accident, and can be paired with a trailer, alcohol and often an alligator.

In reality, Florida Man is probably a social media thing because the Sunshine State has Sunshine laws, providing easy access to arrest records, allowing bizarre cases to be mined for such tales.  

Had Gideon lived today, he’d easily fit the profile. But he had another crazy idea, a plan that involved writing to the Florida Supreme Court, and even the U.S. Supreme Court, with whatever writing implement and piece of paper he could find behind bars.

This crude petition for a Writ of Certiorari amazingly made it into the lap of the highest court in America, which agreed to take the case. The justices assigned his case to Abe Fortas, one of the leading lawyers in America. Opposing him and representing Florida in the Gideon v. Wainwright case was a capable attorney who would eventually go on to be a law school dean.

Critics of Gideon’s position noted that in the Betts v. Brady nearly twenty years earlier, someone who was illiterate or had a low IQ could get a lawyer in state cases. And Florida did have them, but only for capital cases. Fortas pointed out that the 6th Amendment does not distinguish the type of case (capital or not), nor does it only permit special cases to get one. 

In fact, Fortas’ best argument came when he pointed out that the best attorneys in the country almost always hire a lawyer when charged, as did the famed Clarence Darrow when accused of jury tampering.

You’re probably wondering why I am even bringing it up now. In the last few years, Supreme Court Justices Clarence Thomas and Neil Gorsuch have written about overturning the Gideon v. Wainwright case. Justice Samuel Alito has joined a similar dissent, though he has not called for taking away the Gideon precedent per se.

On the subject, I show my students the film “Gideon’s Trumpet,” one of Henry Fonda’s last roles, featuring Fay Wray, Lane Smith, Jose Ferrer and John Houseman, as much for the ruling as I do for evidence that one man, even a “Florida Man” can make a difference in the law, providing America’s less fortunate defendants a right, which may now under threat in the United States today.