Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Clarence Gideon Story

Abe and Clarence


First things first: Gideon needed a lawyer. The high court accepted Gideon's in forma pauperis — that he could not afford a lawyer for his appeal.

The court assigned Abe Fortas to represent him.

Feisty and diminutive, Fortas was a Memphis native, the son of Russian immigrants. He had attended college in his hometown, then was accepted at Yale Law School, where he edited the Law Journal.

A liberal Democrat, Fortas became a devotee of New Deal politics and soon found himself in Washington, working first at the Department of Agriculture and later the Department of Interior.

After World War II, Fortas left government work and established Arnold, Fortas and Porter, which would become one of Washington 's most influential law firms. In 1948, a rising-star Texas politician named Lyndon Johnson called on Fortas to represent him in a dispute over a contested primary election for the U.S. Senate.

Fortas and his client prevailed, and Fortas earned a lifelong role as Johnson's advisor, friend and confidante.

In the summer of 1962, Supreme Court administrators sent a letter to Gideon informing him that the justices had agreed to hear his appeal and that Fortas had been appointed to represent him.

Having failed to hear from Fortas by the end of August, Gideon sent the lawyer a pointed letter: "I have not heard from you, and I would like to find out if you are going to represent me. Because I don't know what to do."

The men exchanged brief notes, including one in which Fortas asked Gideon for a brief biography to help him prepare the appeal.


He received a 22-page reply from Gideon that began, "You will understand that due to my limited education and also to the utter folly and hopelessness [of] parts of my life, it will be doubtful if I can put it down on paper with any reasonable comprehension. I will not be proud of this biography."

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