Johnson v. Zerbst: Case Brief & Summary

Instructor: Kenneth Poortvliet
Today if an accused can't afford an attorney, the state has to provide one. But it wasn't always that way. In this lesson, we will learn how the Supreme Court in Johnson v. Zerbst ruled regarding the right to an attorney in federal courts in 1938.

I Have the Right!

What if you were charged with a crime that could put you away for a long time, and you knew you didn't do it? Wouldn't you want an attorney? What if officers kept you locked up before trial and didn't give you a chance to call your attorney? Doesn't this violate your rights? This is the issue the Supreme Court faced in Johnson v. Zerbst (1938).

Facts of the Case

Federal agents arrested John Johnson for making and passing counterfeit money. At the Grand Jury hearing in November 1933, he had counsel to represent him but was nonetheless indicted. He was then held in jail until trial, and he wasn't given an opportunity to seek counsel. On January 23, 1934, he was given notice of the indictment, transferred to the courthouse, whisked into the courtroom where the judge asked him if he was ready to proceed. He said yes but later said that was because he thought that was what he was supposed to do when the judge asked him. The trial judge took his ''yes'' as a waiver of his right to counsel.

Next, Johnson was arraigned, tried and convicted, and sentenced to almost five years in prison all in the same day. He later testified that he had asked his jailer to be able to talk to an attorney, but the jailer refused. The district attorney where the jail was located denied Johnson's assertion that he had ever received a request for an attorney and that he never denied Johnson the chance to get an attorney.

Once in prison, Johnson filed a writ of habeas corpus, which is a petition to have a judge rule on whether the prison has the right to to hold a prisoner and literally means ''present the body.'' The writ can bring up any reason why a person might wrongfully be in prison, including a violation of a constitutional right. The Court of Appeals denied his petition, and the Supreme Court agreed to take the case.

Historical Background

The Sixth Amendment to the Constitution contains a clause guaranteeing the right to an attorney. It states that the ''accused shall enjoy the right ... to have the assistance of counsel for his defense.'' The founders felt this was a necessary right as the British had often denied the colonists the right to be represented by an attorney, which led to its inclusion in the Bill of Rights.

At the time of the case, it was the usual practice in federal court to allow an accused to speak to counsel and arrange for one before trial. If a defendant was on trial for a capital crime and couldn't afford one, then the trial court would appoint one. In a previous case, Powell v. Alabama (1932), the Supreme Court created the fundamental fairness doctrine, which established the right to an attorney in federal courts, but the trial court had the discretion on when to give that defendant a court-appointed attorney.

The fairness doctrine also reiterated that a defendant could make a waiver of his right to an attorney if he did so ''competently and knowingly.'' There was no uniform way to determine if a waiver was made competently and knowingly, and it was also up to the trial judge to determine if that was the case.

Issue and Decision

The Supreme Court was asked whether a defendant who had not been given the ability to hire an attorney and was not provided one to assist him at trial, was denied the assistance of counsel under the Sixth Amendment. The court held that he was.

Justice Hugo Black ruled that a poor defendant must be provided an attorney in federal courts.
Hugo Black

The court also held that in federal courts, the government must bear the costs of an attorney if the defendant can't afford one in all cases in which a significant liberty interest is at stake.

Finally, the court ruled that a waiver can't be implied from the circumstances but must be made by proper form and made part of the record.

The court looked at the wording of the Sixth Amendment as well as the importance of the right it delivered. Justice Hugo Black delivered the opinion of the majority, and he said that the amendment recognized an obvious truth that the accused does not have the legal skill to protect his rights when brought before a powerful tribunal. The prosecutor is experienced and skilled and no match for an untrained defendant no matter how capable and intelligent.

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