Betts v. Brady
316 U.S. 455, 62 S. Ct. 1252, 86 L. Ed.2d 1595 (1942)

  • Betts was an unemployed farm hand who was arrested for robbery. He asked the judge to appoint him counsel, but the judge refused.
    • In that jurisdiction, counsel was only appointed for cases involving rape or murder.
  • Betts was convicted in Maryland State Court and sentenced to prison. He filed a writ of habeus corpus in Federal Court.
    • Betts argued that being denied counsel resulted in an inability to properly defend himself, and that violated the 6th Amendment.
      • ” In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right… to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defence.”
  • The Federal Trial Court denied the writ and upheld the conviction. Betts appealed.
  • The Federal Appellate Court affirmed. Betts appealed.
  • The US Supreme Court affirmed.
    • The US Supreme Court found that aspects of the 6th Amendment did not necessarily apply to the States via the 14th Amendment, unless that aspect was fundamental to the ability to get a fair trial.
      • “The 14th Amendment prohibits the conviction and incarceration of one whose trial is offensive to the common and fundamental ideas of fairness and right, and while want of counsel in a particular case may result in a conviction lacking in such fundamental fairness, we cannot say that the amendment embodies an inexorable command 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.”
      • If this case had been originally heard in Federal Court instead of State Court, then the 6th Amendment would have applied and Betts would have received legal counsel.
    • The Court found that there are cases in which a defendant requires counsel in order to receive a fair trial and due process, but that isn’t true across the board, and should be considered on a case-by-case basis.
      • In this case, the Court found that Betts could get a fair trial without the aid of legal counsel.
        • He was 43 years old and of ‘ordinary intelligence’. The Court felt that should be enough to understand all the aspects of criminal procedure.
      • The Court noted that in every jurisdiction the judge always has the discretion to appoint counsel if they deem it necessary.
        • But, it would expensive to give counsel to everyone, so the courts were within their rights to limit it to only those cases where they felt it was necessary.
  • In a dissent it was argued that denial of counsel based on the inability to pay means that poor people will be more likely to be convicted, and that is a violation of the Equal Protection Clause.
    • “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.”
  • The case applied what was known as the fundamental fairness approach for incorporating the Bill of Rights into State law.
    • The other approaches are the total incorporation approach and the selective incorporation approach.
    • See Palko v. Connecticut (302 U.S. 319 (1937)).
  • This case was later overruled by Gideon v. Wainright (372 U.S. 335 (1963)), which extended the right to appointed counsel to all cases.