Street Law, Inc. and The Supreme Court Historical Society present

Landmark Cases of the U.S. Supreme Court

Street Law /

The Evolution of a Decision

Part I: Cases
Directions

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
  • Decision
  • Reasoning

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)

Follow-up

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
  1. 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? 
  2. What rationale does Justice Brandeis provide for the Court occasionally changing its mind? 
  3. 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? 
  4. What impact did the decision in Gideon v. Wainwright have on the due process rights of criminal defendants in the United States?
Source
  • Lewis, Anthony. Gideon's Trumpet. New York: Random House, 1964.
< Gideon v. Wainwright