Today marks the 80th anniversary of the landmark Supreme Court case of Johnson v. Zerbst. Johnson marked the first time the Supreme Court found that indigent defendants were constitutionally required to have counsel provided to them in federal court for non-capital crimes.
The Case behind Johnson is interesting to say the least. On November 21st, 1934 John Johnson, and enlisted Marine was arrested in Charleston South Carolina for possession of counterfeit money. On January 21st, 1935 Mr. Johnson was indicted and brought to trial. Before trial, Mr. Johnson sought a lawyer appointed to him as he was too poor to afford one on his own. The district attorney denied his request, and the Trial judge only asked if Mr. Johnson was ready for trial. Two days later, Mr. Johnson representing himself, was found guilty and sentenced to four and a half years in federal prison.
Mr. Johnson then appealed his conviction, seeking a writ of habeaus corpus arguing that his 6th amendment right to counsel had been violated when the trial court failed to appoint an attorney for him. At the time defendants in federal court were not entitled to a lawyer unless they faced the death penalty following the landmark case of Powell v. Alabama. Mr. Johnson writ was denied at the District Court level, and that decision was affirmed by the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals who noted that Powell only applied to capital cases. Mr. Johnson then sought a writ of certiorari from the Supreme Court and was granted cert in early 1938.
The Supreme Court heard arguments on April 4th, 1938. Mr. Johnson’s argument was simple. Mr. Johnson argued that the 6th amendment right to counsel was a fundamental constitutional right. Further, Mr. Johnson argued that the Supreme Court’s holding in Powell already established the fundamental importance of the right to counsel for indigent defendants in capital cases, and as such the same logic should apply to non-capital cases.
The State argued that Powell was a limited holding that only granted 6th amendment rights to cases where life was at stake. Further the State argued that the federal judiciary could not bear the cost burden associated with providing all indigent defendants with lawyers for federal cases.
The Supreme Court rendered judgment on May 23rd, 1938. The Court in a 7 – 2 decision reversed Mr. Johnson’s conviction for violation of the 6th amendment. The majority led by Justice Hugo Black agreed with Mr. Johnson holding that the 6th amendment should extend to non-capital cases in federal court because the right of liberty was almost as precious as life. The majority did limit their opinion though, holding that the 6th amendment should only be extended to Federal Courts as the 6th amendment had yet to be incorporated against the states via the 14th amendment. Justice Black would go on to author the Majority opinion in the landmark case of Gideon v. Wainwright which extended 6th amendment protections to indigent defendants in state trials as well.
The minority led by the despised Justice James Clark McReynolds believed that the 6th amendment did not guarantee the right to counsel for indigent defendant’s. Rather the minority believed that the 6th amendment only guaranteed your right to have a lawyer if you could afford one.
With the cases decided, Mr. Johnson’s case was reversed and remanded for a new trial where he was found not guilty. The Johnson case stands as one of a series of cases that expanded the scope of the 6th amendment right to counsel. While it would be 26 years before that right would be extended to all defendants, the case remains important for the progress it represents. With Experienced Legal Representation, you can exercise the best expression of your 6th amendment rights.
Written by Hunter J. White
 Johnson v. Zerbst, 304 U.S. 458, 58 S. Ct. 1019 (1938)
 Powell v. Alabama, 287 U.S. 45, 53 S. Ct. 55 (1932)
 Gideon v. Wainwright 372 U.S. 335 (1963)