Today marks the 62nd anniversary of the landmark Supreme Court case of Griffin v. Illinois. Griffin stands for the simple proposition that poverty cannot be a bar to defendant appealing their convictions. Prior to Griffin, states would commonly make defendants pay for trial transcripts out-of-pocket for appeals. While many states allowed exceptions for defendants in capital cases, and cases of constitutional issues, they would make all other defendants pay to appeal.
The case behind Griffin was unfortunately all to common for most indigent defendants. Judson Griffin and James Crenshaw were indicted on charges of armed robbery in Cook County Illinois. Both men were convicted and immediately appealed their convictions. However, at the time, Illinois required Defendants who were appealing their conviction to pay for the transcript of the trial court in order to appeal. Illinois had a statutory scheme in place that allowed indigent appellants to be given a free transcript for appeal if they raised a constitutional issue, or if they faced a capital case. However, while both Mr. Griffin and Mr. Crenshaw were indigent, the trial errors they were appealing were not constitutional in nature.
Mr. Griffin and Mr. Crenshaw made a motion to the court asking to be given a free transcript because of the indigence. The Trial court found that the men were indeed indigent, but denied their request for the free transcript because they did not raise a constitutional question. This holding effectively denied them the right to appeal, as all appeals in Illinois required a complete trial transcript. The men then appealed the ruling the Illinois Supreme Court arguing they had been denied their 14th amendment due process right to appeal by the Illinois appellate statutory scheme. The Illinois Supreme Court denied their appeal on the sole grounds that they had not raised a substantial constitutional question.
After losing at the Illinois Supreme Court, Mr. Griffin and Mr. Crenshaw sought a writ of certiorari from the Supreme Court arguing that their 14th amendment due process rights had been violated by denying them the ability to appeal, and their equal protection rights had been violated because their due process right had been denied because they were poor. The Supreme Court granted cert in mid-1955.
The Supreme Court heard arguments on December 7th, 1955. Mr. Griffin and Mr. Crenshaw had their cases consolidated, and argued that their 14th amendment due process and equal protection rights had been violated by the State of Illinois because they were not allowed to appeal their case because they were indigent.
The State argued that the men had not been denied their right to appeal, only their right to appeal non-capital, non-constitutional errors. The State further argued that the Constitution equal protection clause did not apply of wealth or poverty. Finally, the State argued that the cost of providing free transcripts to all indigent defendants would be to burdensome for the state.
The Supreme Court rendered its judgment on April 23rd, 1956. In a 5 – 4 decision the majority led by Justice Hugo Black agreed that Mr. Griffin and Mr. Crenshaw had been denied their 14th amendment due process and equal protection rights by the Illinois statutory scheme. The majority held that, while states are not Constitutionally required to provide defendants with appeals, if the state did provide appeals, they could not deny a defendant that right based on poverty. Thus, the majority vacated the Illinois Supreme Court denial, and remanded the case with orders to provide them men with a free transcript for appeal.
Justice Felix Frankfurter wrote his own concurrence in which he agreed with the Majority, but admonished the majority for not extending this new ruling to all prior cases were defendants had been denied their right to appeal based on poverty in the past.
Justice Harold Hitz Burton writing for the minority argued that while it would be preferable that all defendants were allowed to appeal their cases, the Constitution did not mandate that state courts make free transcripts available for indigent defendants. The minority also argued that due process did not require a state to provide appeals, and equal protection did not apply to wealth.
With Griffin decided, the Supreme Court extended a new constitutional protection to all Americans regardless of wealth. With Experienced Legal Representation at trial, you can avoid the need for expensive and time-consuming appeals.
Written by Hunter J. White
 Griffin v. Illinois, 351 U.S. 12, 76 S. Ct. 585 (1956)