In Re Gault Case of 1967: Summary & Decision

Instructor: Rachael Smith

Rachael has a background in secondary education and has practiced law for eight years.

The seminal case In re Gault, addressed how due process rights applied to children in order to ensure a fair trial process. This lesson will discuss the Gault case and will explain the effects of this ruling on the juvenile justice system.

Background Facts

Several important cases in the 1960s challenged the treatment of juveniles in the court system. In Re Gault was one of the most important cases, establishing that juveniles, like adults, are guaranteed a fair trial. We will look at the facts of the Gault case and examine how a 15 year old made such an impact on juvenile law.

Jerry Gault was on a six-month term of probation in Arizona for being with a friend who had stolen a wallet. One day in 1964, Jerry and his friend made an inappropriate prank phone call to Jerry's neighbor. After the neighbor filed a complaint, Jerry was arrested at home. His parents were at work at the time, and the officer did not attempt to contact them.

A hearing was held the next day. There was no court reporter or other recording of the hearing. Jerry's neighbor was not present to testify, and no other witnesses were sworn either. Jerry was not given a copy of any charges, and the court did not even inform him of the charges. He appeared without an attorney because juveniles were not allowed to have counsel at this time. After this initial hearing, Jerry returned to detention for a few days and then was allowed to go home.

Jerry returned to court later that week so that the judge could determine if the charge was true. Like the first hearing, the alleged victim was not present and no record of the proceedings was kept. A report was filed by the probation officer accusing Jerry of making lewd phone calls, but no formal charges were filed or read to Jerry. Jerry did not get an opportunity to present any evidence or have a trial on the charge. At the end of the hearing, the judge sentenced Jerry to a juvenile detention facility until he reached the age of majority (21 in Arizona).

Writ of Habeas Corpus

Jerry's parents filed a writ of habeas corpus in the Arizona courts alleging that there was no legal authority to hold Jerry. A writ of habeas corpus is a legal action where someone claims that the government does not have the authority to hold someone in detention. Because juveniles were not given a right to appeal in Arizona at this time, this was the only legal action the Gault family could take.

Their request was denied and appealed to the Supreme Court of Arizona where it was again denied. The Arizona courts found that although juveniles are afforded certain constitutional rights, they do not have the same rights as adults.

All the Way to the Supreme Court

The matter was appealed to the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) where, in a nearly unanimous decision, the Court found that certain due process rights do apply to juveniles including:

  • the right to confront and cross-examine witnesses against them
  • the right to an attorney
  • the right to have notice of the charges filed against them
  • the right against self-incrimination

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