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Betts v. Brady

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Significance: Until the Betts ruling was reversed in 1963, indigent criminal defendants in state trials did not have the constitutional right to a lawyer's assistance.


Betts, a poor defendant prosecuted for robbery in Maryland, asked his trial court to appoint a lawyer for his defense. The local policy, however, was to appoint counsel only in cases of murder or rape. After his conviction, Betts filed habeas corpus petitions, alleging that his rights under the Sixth Amendment had been violated. The lower courts rejected his petitions, based on the principle that the first eight amendments generally applied only to the federal government. The Supreme Court then granted certiorari. The issue before the Court was whether the right to counsel should be incorporated into the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The justices voted six to three to uphold the lower courts. Speaking for the majority, Owen J. Roberts noted that most states did not require appointment of counsel in all criminal trials, and he argued that counsel was not necessary for a fair trial in Betts's circumstances. Counsel was required only in special situations such as Powell v. Alabama (1932), when illiterate defendants had been charged with a capital offense. Three dissenters Hugo L. Black, William O. Douglas, and Frank Murphy argued that the constitutional right to counsel should be recognized in all criminal trials. In Gideon v. Wainwright (1963), the Court finally accepted the position of the dissenters.