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Betts v. Brady
[316 U.S. 455]
Stone Court,  Decided 6-3,  6/1/1942
Read the actual decision


The Betts case was one small stop on the way to incorporating the Sixth Amendment into the Fourteenth, and guaranteeing a right to representation to all criminal defendants.

Betts was a small time hood indicted for robbery. When he requested appointment of representation for his defense, the trial judge refused. He defended himself and was convicted. In jail, he filed a variety of petitions on his own behalf, all of which were refused. Finally he filed his own request for certiorari to the Supreme Court, and was granted a Writ.

Betts claimed that his right to representation at trial, as guaranteed by the Sixth Amendment and incorporated by the Fourteenth, was violated by the trial judge. The Supreme Court disagreed, presumably noting the smallness of the crime, and Betts's demonstrated ability to work the legal system.

Writing for the Court, Justice Owen J. Roberts pointed out that most states did not require the appointment of counsel for non-capital cases, and that Betts's rights to an adequate defense had not been demonstrably impaired in this case. Justice Roberts did not dwell on the issue of incorporation of the Sixth Amendment in this case, leaving it for a future Court.

This case stands somewhat in contrast to Powell v. Alabama, the first of the famous Scottsboro Boys trials, in that, in Powell, the Court found a right to counsel by the defendant. What separates the two cases is mainly that Powell was on trial for his life, not a petty crime, and that he had been demonstrably poorly represented by counsel.

In Powell, the Court applied the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment directly to the case, again without approaching the issue of incorporation of the Sixth. In the court's opinion, the clause required representation by counsel where deemed necessary to achieve a fair trial, which was not felt to be the case in Betts.

In their dissent in Betts, Justices Douglas, Black and Murphy extended that thought to any criminal case, not just capital cases, adding that Due Process was better served by a right to counsel.

In 1963, Gideon v. Wainwright finally decided the issue in favor of full incorporation of the Sixth Amendment.


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Other decisions pertaining to Rights of Accused:

Branzburg v. Hayes    [408 U.S. 665 (1972)]  Burger Court
Brown v. Mississippi    [297 U.S. 278 (1936)]  Hughes Court
Estes v. Texas    [381 U.S. 532 (1905)]  Warren Court
Gideon v. Wainwright    [372 U.S. 335 (1963)]  Warren Court
Mapp v. Ohio    [367 U.S. 643 (1961)]  Warren Court
McCardle, Ex Parte    [74 U.S. 506 (1869)]  Chase Court
Milligan, Ex Parte    [71 U.S. 2 (1866)]  Chase Court
Miranda v. Arizona    [384 U.S. 436 (1966)]  Warren Court
Weeks v. United States    [232 U.S. 383 (1914)]  White Court

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