Supreme Court Cases

Betts v. Brady, 1942

Historical Background

Although Franklin Delano Roosevelt had been elected President of the United States in 1932, it was not until his second term in 1937 that he had the chance to appoint a justice to the Supreme Court. Between 1937 and 1943, however, Roosevelt made eight appointments, including that of a chief justice, Harlan Fiske Stone, who replaced the outgoing Charles Evans Hughes in 1941. Although all of FDR's appointees (Hugo Black, Stanley Reed, Felix Frankfurter, William O. Douglas, Frank Murphy, James Byrnes, Robert Jackson, and Wiley Rutledge) were economic liberals, the court was divided, sometimes bitterly, over cases involving civil rights. Justices Black, Douglas, Murphy, and (after 1943) Rutledge followed the "judicial activist" tradition which they traced to the great Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes. The rest of the court, usually following Justice Frankfurter's reasoning, and wary of extending the rights of the accused beyond what they deemed the Framers' intent, followed a policy of "judicial restraint."

Circumstances of the Case

A court in Carroll County, Maryland, indicted a 43-year-old defendant, Betts, for robbery in 1941. Betts could not afford to pay an attorney, so he asked the court to appoint one on his behalf. The judge refused, claiming that such appointments were made only in cases where the accused was charged with rape or murder. Betts pleaded not guilty and acted as his own defense, calling witnesses who supported his claim that he had been in a different place at the time of the robbery for which he stood accused. He failed, however, to convince the judge, who found Betts guilty and sentenced him to prison for eight years.

Betts appealed his conviction on the grounds that the failure of the court to appoint a lawyer to represent him denied his right to counsel under the 6th Amendment, and his right to due process under the 5th Amendment. The Supreme Court's decision in the case of Powell v. Alabama, 1932 upheld the precedent of "incorporation" extending the Bill of Rights to all States by way of the 14th Amendment. Given that precedent, attorneys for Betts argued that the Maryland court's refusal to appoint a lawyer for Betts violated "fundamental" fairness as established by the Court.

Constitutional Issues

The case involved the guarantees of the 5th and 6th amendments as applied to the States by the 14th Amendment. Did the 6th Amendment's right-to-counsel clause provide the accused an opportunity or a guarantee? In Powell, the Court ruled that those accused of an offense for which death was a possible sentence in either State or federal courts were entitled to counsel whether they could afford it or not. Betts took the question one step further. Did the 14th Amendment incorporate the 6th Amendment right to representation by counsel, and the 5th Amendment right to due process, to all State courts in every case?


For Betts: The defendant's inability to pay for a lawyer had no bearing on his guilt or innocence, but it greatly increased his chances of being found guilty. Moreover, because he did not waive his right to a lawyer, as required by Maryland law, correct trial procedure was not followed. On both counts, the conviction of Betts should have been overturned because he did not receive the fair trial guaranteed him by the 5th Amendment. The 14th Amendment incorporates the due process provisions of the Bill of Rights into State law.

For Brady (Warden of the prison where Betts was held): The State of Maryland appoints counsel for indigent, or poor, defendants only when they are charged with a capital offense, such as rape or murder. The right to counsel is not a right that is incorporated by the 14th Amendment into State law in every case, according to previous rulings by the Supreme Court. Moreover, the Constitution guarantees a right to counsel; it does not guarantee that counsel will be provided. Finally, Betts was a competent man, not unfamiliar with court procedure. He presented his defense competently, calling and questioning witnesses, and was convicted because the judge believed that the weight of the evidence was against him. Therefore the judgment against him did not constitute an unfair trial.

Decision and Rationale

Justice Owen Roberts delivered the 6–3 majority opinion, in which the court upheld Betts's conviction. Roberts did allow that in certain cases a lack of counsel could produce the "fundamental unfairness" that would require overturning a conviction. But the Court could not decide that appointing counsel for indigent defendants was required in every case. Roberts wrote that circumstances which might cause "fundamental unfairness" in one case might not in another. Therefore, the Court rejected "hard and fast rules" to establish the necessity for appointing counsel. In Powell v. Alabama, it was obvious that appointing counsel was necessary for a fair trial because of the limited resources of the defendants and the prejudicial atmosphere of the trial. Most of the time, however, such decisions could be made fairly if left to the wisdom of the local court. "Every court has the power, if it deems proper, to appoint counsel where that course seems to be required in the interest of fairness," Roberts wrote. "…[W]e cannot say that the [14th] 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."

In an important dissent to the case, Justice Hugo Black declared, "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 represented."

The Betts case set a precedent for many years for allowing States to determine when counsel for the defense should be appointed. Justice Black remained on the bench until the next landmark case on this issue, Gideon v. Wainwright, was decided in 1963. Black wrote the majority decision in that case, reversing Betts v. Brady and requiring that counsel be provided for all indigent defendants in criminal trials.

Questions for Discussion

  1. Is it necessary to appoint a lawyer for mentally competent adults in court? Why or why not? What is it about legal proceedings and laws that makes self-representation nearly always "fundamentally unfair," as decided in Gideon?
  2. The Gideon v. Wainwright decision makes the right to counsel a guarantee of counsel, regardless of economic status. Do you agree with that decision or do you agree with the decision reached in the Betts case? What are the differences in the two? Where was justice better served?