Powell v. Alabama

287 U.S. 45

Case Year: 1932

Case Ruling: 7-2, Reversed

Opinion Justice: Sutherland

More Information

Concurring Opinions

Dissenting Opinions

Court Opinion Joiner(s):

Brandeis, Cardozo, Hughes, Roberts, Stone, VanDevanter


1st Concurring Opinion



1st Dissenting Opinion

Author: Butler

Joiner(s): McReynolds

2nd Concurring Opinion



2nd Dissenting Opinion



3rd Concurring Opinion



3rd Dissenting Opinion



Other Concurring Opinions:



Riding in an open car on a freight train traveling from Chattanooga through Alabama on March 25, 1931, were nine young black men, seven young white men, and two white women. During the journey, the young men got into a fight, which ended with the white youths being thrown off the train and the women claiming they had been raped by the blacks. Word of the alleged rape spread, and, when the train reached Paint Rock, a sheriff's posse arrested the blacks, who ranged in age from twelve to twenty, and jailed them in the county seat of Scottsboro. A hostile, racist crowd gathered to harass the alleged assailants, and extra security personnel were needed to prevent a lynching.

When the youths appeared at the courthouse, it was obvious they were frightened. They were young, uneducated, and away from home, with no friends or family to help them. Under Alabama law, the judge was supposed to appoint counsel to assist them because they were charged with a capital offense. Instead, he assigned all the town's members of the bar to represent the accused. No single lawyer took responsibility for their defense. Moreover, the judge set the trial date for April 6, just six days after they had been indicted.

On the morning of April 6 a Tennessee lawyer named Stephen R. Roddy appeared to represent the defendants. Roddy had been sent by people interested in their plight. He had not yet prepared a case and was not familiar with Alabama law and procedure. The judge authorized Milo Moody, a local attorney, to work with Roddy. In rapid succession the nine defendants were tried in a series of four trials. Given the hostile environment in which they were tried, it should come as no surprise that eight of the nine "Scottsboro boys" were found guilty and sentenced to death.

The main question emerging from this case was this: Do indigents have the right to counsel at government expense?



It is hardly necessary to say that the right to counsel being conceded, a defendant should be afforded a fair opportunity to secure counsel of his own choice. Not only was that not done here, but such designation of counsel as was attempted was either so indefinite or so close upon the trial as to amount to a denial of effective and substantial aid in that regard....

...[U]ntil the very morning of the trial no lawyer had been named or definitely designated to represent the defendants. Prior to that time, the trial judge had "appointed all the members of the bar" for the limited "purpose of arraigning the defendants." Whether they would represent the defendants thereafter, if no counsel appeared in their behalf, was a matter of speculation only, or, as the judge indicated, of mere anticipation on the part of the court. Such a designation, even if made for all purposes, would, in our opinion, have fallen far short of meeting, in any proper sense, a requirement for the appointment of counsel. How many lawyers were members of the bar does not appear; but, in the very nature of things, whether many or few, they would not, thus collectively named, have been given that clear appreciation of responsibility or impressed with that individual sense of duty which should and naturally would accompany the appointment of a selected member of the bar, specifically named and assigned.

That this action of the trial judge in respect of appointment of counsel was little more than an expansive gesture, imposing no substantial or definite obligation upon any one, is borne out by the fact that prior to the calling of the case for trial on April 6, a leading member of the local bar accepted employment on the side of the prosecution and actively participated in the trial.... This the lawyer in question, of his own accord, frankly stated to the court; and no doubt he acted with the utmost good faith. Probably other members of the bar had a like understanding. In any event, the circumstance lends emphasis to the conclusion that during perhaps the most critical period of the proceedings against these defendants, that is to say, from the time of their arraignment until the beginning of their trial, when consultation, thoroughgoing investigation and preparation were vitally important, the defendants did not have the aid of counsel in any real sense, although they were as much entitled to such aid during that period as at the trial itself....

The defendants, young, ignorant, illiterate, surrounded by hostile sentiment, haled back and forth under guard of soldiers, charged with an atrocious crime regarded with especial horror in the community where they were to be tried, were thus put in peril of their lives within a few moments after counsel for the first time charged with any degree of responsibility began to represent them.

It is not enough to assume that counsel thus precipitated into the case thought there was no defense, and exercised their best judgment in proceeding to trial without preparation. Neither they nor the court could say what a prompt and thoroughgoing investigation might disclose as to the facts. No attempt was made to investigate. No opportunity to do so was given....

...[W]e think the failure of the trial court to give them reasonable time and opportunity to secure counsel was a clear denial of due process.

But passing that, and assuming their inability, even if opportunity had been given, to employ counsel, as the trial court evidently did assume, we are of opinion that, under the circumstances just stated, the necessity of counsel was so vital and imperative that the failure of the trial court to make an effective appointment of counsel was likewise a denial of due process within the meaning of the Fourteenth Amendment. Whether this would be so in other criminal prosecutions, or under other circumstances, we need not determine. All that is necessary now to decide, as we do decide, is that in a capital case, where the defendant is unable to employ counsel, and is incapable adequately of making his own defense because of ignorance, feeblemindedness, illiteracy, or the like, it is the duty of the court, whether requested or not, to assign counsel for him as a necessary requisite of due process of law; and that duty is not discharged by an assignment at such a time or under such circumstances as to preclude the giving of effective aid in the preparation and trial of the case. To hold otherwise would be to ignore the fundamental postulate, already adverted to, "that there are certain immutable principles of justice which inhere in the very idea of free government which no member of the Union may disregard." In a case such as this, whatever may be the rule in other cases, the right to have counsel appointed, when necessary, is a logical corollary from the constitutional right to be heard by counsel....

Judgments reversed


The Court ...grounds its opinion and judgment upon a single assertion of fact. It is that petitioners "were denied the right of counsel, with the accustomed incidents of consultation and opportunity of preparation for trial." If that is true, they were denied due process of law and are entitled to have the judgments against them reversed.

But no such denial is shown by the record.

Nine defendants ...were accused in one indictment.... Instead of trying them en masse, the State gave four trials and so lessened the danger of mistake and injustice that inevitably attends an attempt in a single trial to ascertain the guilt or innocence of many accused....

...It must be inferred from the record that Mr. Roddy at all times was in touch with the defendants and the people who procured him to act for them. Mr. Moody and others of the local bar also acted for defendants at the time of the first arraignment, and ...thereafter proceeded in the discharge of their duty, including conferences with the defendants. There is not the slightest ground to suppose that Roddy or Moody were by fear or in any manner restrained from full performance of their duties. Indeed, it clearly appears that the State, by proper and adequate show of its purpose and power to preserve order, furnished adequate protection to them and the defendants.

When the first case was called for trial, defendants' attorneys had already prepared, and then submitted, a motion for change of venue, together with supporting papers. They were ready to, and did at once, introduce testimony of witnesses to sustain that demand....

If there had been any lack of opportunity for preparation, trial counsel would have applied to the court for postponement. No such application was made. There was no suggestion, at the trial or in the motion for a new trial which they made, that Mr. Roddy or Mr. Moody was denied such opportunity, or that they were not, in fact, fully prepared. The amended motion for new trial, by counsel who succeeded them, contains the first suggestion that defendants were denied counsel or opportunity to prepare for trial. But neither Mr. Roddy nor Mr. Moody has given any support to that claim. Their silence requires a finding that the claim is groundless, for if it had any merit they would be bound to support it. And no one has come to suggest any lack of zeal or good faith on their part.

If correct, the ruling that the failure of the trial court to give petitioners time and opportunity to secure counsel was denial of due process is enough, and with this the opinion should end. But the Court goes on to declare that "the failure of the trial court to make an effective appointment of counsel was likewise a denial of due process within the meaning of the Fourteenth Amendment." This is an extension of federal authority into a field hitherto occupied exclusively by the several States. Nothing before the Court calls for a consideration of the point. It was not suggested below, and petitioners do not ask for its decision here. The Court, without being called upon to consider it, adjudges without a hearing an important constitutional question concerning criminal procedure in state courts....

The record wholly fails to reveal that petitioners have been deprived of any right guaranteed by the Federal Constitution, and I am of opinion that the judgment should be affirmed.