Part I: Cases
Read each of the excerpts below. Then take notes on the cases. For each of the cases, include the following in your notes:
- Title of case
- Year it was decided
- Constitutional question
Powell v. Alabama
The question of a defendant's right to a lawyer in state criminal
procedures can be traced back to the 1932 Supreme Court decision in Powell v. Alabama.
The problems began on a train when a fight broke out between two groups
of youths—one group white, the other black. When the train reached the
next station, the nine black youths were arrested and accused of raping
two white women who had been on the train. Less than a week later, the
trials were hurriedly conducted with three men being tried each day for
three days. The judge had appointed "all the members of the bar" to
represent the defendants, but these attorneys didn't even show up until
after the trials were over, so another counsel was appointed on the day
of the trial. All nine men were convicted and sentenced to death. They
appealed and the case eventually reached the Supreme Court of the United
States. The Court ruled that the defendants had been denied the right
to counsel. In the opinion, Justice Sutherland wrote the following:
- "The right to be heard would be, in many cases, of little avail if
it did not comprehend the right to be heard by counsel. Even the
intelligent and educated layman has small and sometimes no skill in the
science of law. If charged with crime, he is incapable, generally, of
determining for himself whether the indictment is good or bad. He is
unfamiliar with the rules of evidence. Left without the aid of counsel
he may be put on trial without a proper charge, and convicted upon
incompetent evidence, or evidence irrelevant to the issue or otherwise
inadmissible. He lacks both the skill and knowledge adequately to
prepare his defense, even though he have a perfect one. He requires the
guiding hand of counsel at every step in the proceedings against him.
Without it, though he be not guilty, he faces the danger of conviction
because he does not know how to establish his innocence. If that be true
of men of intelligence, how much more true is it of the ignorant and
illiterate, or those of feeble intellect."
For these and other reasons, the Court ruled that in capital cases, defendants are entitled to an attorney.
Betts v. Brady
Ten years after the decision in Powell v. Alabama, a case regarding the defendant's right to a lawyer was again before the Court in Betts v. Brady.
In this case, a man in Maryland was accused of robbery. He was too poor
to afford a lawyer, so he asked the state Circuit Court to appoint one.
The court denied his request so he represented himself. He was
convicted and sentenced to eight years in prison. When his petition to
the Maryland Court of Appeals for habeas corpus was denied, he asked the Supreme Court of the United States to review his case.
Justice Roberts wrote the 6 to 3 opinion in which the Court
considered the question of whether the rights in the Sixth Amendment
were "so fundamental and essential to a fair trial, and so to due
process of law, that it is made obligatory upon the states by the
Fourteenth Amendment" (Lewis 110). After conducting extensive research,
the Court determined the following:
- "This material demonstrates that, in the great majority of the
States, it has been the considered judgment of the people, their
representatives and their courts that appointment of counsel is not a
fundamental right, essential to a fair trial. On the contrary, the
matter has generally been deemed one of legislative policy. In the light
of this evidence, we are unable to say that the concept of due process
incorporated in the Fourteenth Amendment obligates the States, whatever
may be their own views, to furnish counsel in every such case. . . . The
states should not be strait-jacketed in this respect."
The Court went on to say this:
- "Asserted denial [of due process of law] is to be tested by an
appraisal of the totality of facts in a given case. That which may, in
one setting, constitute a denial of fundamental fairness, shocking to
the universal sense of justice, may, in other circumstances, and in the
light of other considerations, fall short of such denial. In the
application of such a concept, there is always the danger of falling
into the habit of formulating the guarantee into a set of hard and fast
rules, the application of which in a given case may be to ignore the
qualifying factors. . . . "
In other words, poor defendants were entitled to a lawyer in "special
circumstances," such as when the defendant was mentally disabled or the
charges were especially complex. In other noncapital cases, states were
not required to provide counsel.
Gideon v. Wainwright
Your teacher will assign a background summary for you to read (•)
Next, read the Summary of the Decision.
Argersinger v. Hamlin
Read the abstract (Oyez.org)
Create a time line of these cases. In your time line, include the
year, the name of the case, and a one-sentence summary of the decision
in each of the cases. What is the common thread in all of them?
Part II: Precedent
In the United States, courts generally make decisions based on the
precedent that has been established in earlier cases. This practice is
called stare decisis, which is the Latin term for "to stand by
what has been decided". Justice Brandeis once said, "In most matters it
is more important that the applicable rule of law be settled than that
it be settled right. . . . But in cases involving the Federal
Constitution, where correction through legislative action is practically
impossible, this Court has often overruled its earlier decisions. The
Court bows to the lessons of experience and the force of better
reasoning" (Lewis 84). In other words, the Court is sometimes justified
in changing its mind. On over two hundred occasions, the Court has done
exactly that when it overruled a prior decision, as it did in the case
of Gideon v. Wainwright.
Questions to Consider
- Why does the Court try, as much as possible, to follow the doctrine of stare decisis? What would our country be like if the Court did not follow precedents established in earlier cases?
- What rationale does Justice Brandeis provide for the Court occasionally changing its mind?
- Why did the Court change its mind in Gideon v. Wainwright? To what extent did it depart from its earlier decisions? Why did it do this?
- What impact did the decision in Gideon v. Wainwright have on the due process rights of criminal defendants in the United States?
- Lewis, Anthony. Gideon's Trumpet. New York: Random House, 1964.