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.
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
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
In this case, the Court
found that Betts could get a fair trial without the aid of legal
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
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.