Today marks the 76th anniversary of the disastrous Supreme Court Decision of Betts v. Brady. In Betts, the Supreme Court rejected expanding the 6th amendment right to counsel to state courts. This case effectively denied the majority of indigent defendant’s legal representation until the case was overturned in the landmark case of Gideon v. Wainwright
The case behind this unfortunate decision was equally sad. In 1941, Smith Bets was arrested in Carroll County Maryland on charges of Robbery. Mr. Betts was indigent, and requested the judge appoint him a lawyer. The judge denied his request noting that lawyers were only appointed in cases of Murder and Rape (both capital offenses). Mr. Betts pled not guilty and represented himself at a bench trial. In the trial Mr. Betts called witnesses to establish an alibi of where he was. Unfortunately, the judge did not believe him, found him guilty, and sentenced him to 8 years in prison.
Mr. Betts appealed his conviction on the grounds that his 6th amendment right to counsel had been violated when the state failed to appoint him a lawyer. The Maryland court of appeals and the Supreme Court of Maryland both denied his appeal. Mr. Betts then sought a writ of certiorari from the Supreme Court who granted cert in February of 1942.
On April 13th and 14th Mr. Betts made his argument before the Supreme Court. His argument was simple. The Supreme Court had previously held that indigent defendants were entitled to counsel in capital cases, and non-capital cases in federal court. Mr. Betts urged the Supreme Court in incorporate that right against the states via the 14th amendment.
The State argued that the Maryland State Constitution only allowed for the appointment of counsel for capital cases, and that the 6th amendment only guaranteed the right to counsel, not to have counsel appointed. The State further argued that Mr. Betts had done a competent job in his own defense as he was familiar with the judicial process due to his priors, and because he presented a defense and called and questioned witnesses.
The Supreme Court rendered its judgment on June 1st, 1942. In a 6 -3 decision, the majority opinion led by Justice Owen J. Roberts agreed with the State that Mr. Betts trial had been fundamentally fair, and that because Mr. Betts trial had been fundamentally fair even with the lack of counsel, his conviction should not be overturned. Thus, the Court affirmed his conviction.
The minority led by Justice Hugo Black penned a blistering dissent regarding the concept of fundamental fairness. The dissent focused on how poverty should not be a bar to justice, and that the denial of counsel made it impossible to determine if Mr. Betts had been adequately represented. Thus the dissent reasoned his conviction should be overturned and remanded for a new trial. Luckily, in just 21 years the Supreme Court would eventually adopt Justice Blacks reasoning in the landmark case of Gideon v. Wainwright.
The decision in Betts was disastrous to indigent defendants, allowing states to deny them adequate representation in the most common kinds of criminal cases. Lucky this decision was eventually overturned and the 6th amendment was eventually extended to all indigent defendants. With Experienced Legal Representation, you can ensure that you are adequately represented.
Written by Hunter J. White
 Betts v. Brady, 316 U.S. 455, 62 S. Ct. 1252 (1942)
 Gideon v. Wainwright 372 U.S. 335 (1963)
 Powell v. Alabama, 287 U.S. 45, 53 S. Ct. 55 (1932)
 Johnson v. Zerbst, 304 U.S. 458, 58 S. Ct. 1019 (1938)