Betts v. Brady

316 U.S. 455

Case Year: 1942

Case Ruling: 6-3, Affirmed

Opinion Justice: Roberts

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Concurring Opinions

Dissenting Opinions

Court Opinion Joiner(s):

Byrnes, Frankfurter, Jackson, Reed, Stone


1st Concurring Opinion



1st Dissenting Opinion

Author: Black

Joiner(s): Douglas, Murphy

2nd Concurring Opinion



2nd Dissenting Opinion



3rd Concurring Opinion



3rd Dissenting Opinion



Other Concurring Opinions:


Indicted for robbery in Maryland, Smith Betts--who was poor and uneducated, but literate--requested to have an attorney at government expense. Like many states in the 1940s, Maryland provided indigents with counsel only in rape and murder cases. Betts conducted his own defense and was convicted. On appeal he asked the Supreme Court to apply Johnson v. Zerbst--in which the justices had ruled that indigent defendants involved in federal criminal prosecutions must be represented by counsel--to the states, so as to incorporate the Sixth Amendment guarantee. The Court refused, 6-3. Writing for the majority, JUSTICE OWEN ROBERTS claimed that the Framers never intended that the right to counsel be defined as a fundamental guarantee.



MR. JUSTICE BLACK, dissenting, with whom MR. JUSTICE BLACK and MR. JUSTICE MURPHY concur.

To hold that the petitioner had a constitutional right to counsel in this case does not require us to say that 'no trial for any offense, or in any court, can be fairly conducted and justice accorded a defendant who is not represented by counsel.' This case can be determined by resolution of a narrower question: whether in view of the nature of the offense and the circumstances of his trial and conviction, this petitioner was denied the procedural protection which is his right under the federal constitution. I think he was.

The petitioner, a farm hand, out of a job and on relief, was indicted in a Maryland state court on a charge of robbery. He was too poor to hire a lawyer. He so informed the court and requested that counsel be appointed to defend him. His request was denied. Put to trial without a lawyer, he conducted his own defense, was found guilty, and was sentenced to eight years' imprisonment. The court below found that the petitioner had 'at least an ordinary amount of intelligence.' It is clear from his examination of witnesses that he was a man of little education.

If this case had come to us from a federal court, it is clear we should have to reverse it, because the Sixth Amendment makes the right to counsel in criminal cases inviolable by the federal government. I believe that the Fourteenth Amendment made the sixth applicable to the states. But this view, although often urged in dissents, has never been accepted by a majority of this Court and is not accepted today....

The right to counsel in a criminal proceeding is 'fundamental.' Powell v. Alabama.... It is guarded from invasion by the sixth amendment, adopted to raise an effective barrier against arbitrary or unjust deprivation of liberty by the federal government. Johnson v. Zerbst.

An historical evaluation of the right to a full hearing in criminal cases and the dangers of denying it were set out in the Powell case where this Court said: 'What ... does a hearing include? Historically and in practice, in our own country at least, it has always included the right to the aid of counsel when desired and provided by the party asserting the right.... Even the intelligent and educated layman ... 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 in 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.'...

A practice cannot be reconciled with 'common and fundamental ideas of fairness and right', which subjects innocent men to increased dangers of conviction merely because of their poverty. Whether a man is innocent cannot be determined from a trial in which, as here, denial of counsel has made it impossible to conclude, with any satisfactory degree of certainty, that the defendant's case was adequately presented. No one questions that due process requires a hearing before conviction and sentence for the serious crime of robbery....

Denial to the poor of the request for counsel in proceedings based on charges of serious crime has long been regarded as shocking to the 'universal sense of justice' throughout this country. In 1854, for example, the Supreme Court of Indiana said: 'It is not to be thought of, in a civilized community, for a moment, that any citizen put in jeopardy of life or liberty should be debarred of counsel because he was too poor to employ such aid. No Court could be respected, or respect itself, to sit and hear such a trial. The defense of the poor, in such cases, is a duty resting somewhere, which will be at once conceded as essential to the accused, to the Court, and to the public.'... And most of the other states have shown their agreement by constitutional provisions, statutes, or established practice judicially approved which assure that no man shall be deprived of counsel merely because of his poverty. Any other practice seems to me to defeat the promise of our democratic society to provide equal justice under the law.