The Hughes Court (1930–41)

Criminal Justice

What did the Hughes Court decide in the Scottsboro Boys cases?

The Hughes Court twice invalidated the death-penalty convictions of several of the Scottsboro Boys, nine African American youths who were wrongfully charged and later convicted of raping two white women on a train traveling from Tennessee to Alabama. The youths were immediately arraigned and tried without adequate legal counsel after only six days. The defendants were not provided with an attorney until the morning of trial. Nearly all of the defendants were convicted immediately and another had a hung jury after most the jurors held out for the death penalty when the prosecution had only sought a term of life imprisonment.

The Hughes Court ruled in Powell v. Alabama (1932) that the conviction of several of the Scottsboro Boys, including Ozie Powell, was invalid because they had been deprived of due process. The Court ruled 7–2 that the defendants’ due-process rights were invalidated because the court failed to provide them with the meaningful assistance of counsel in their own defense. Defendants facing capital crimes have a constitutional right to an attorney, the majority reasoned.

After their first convictions were invalidated, the state filed rape charges against most of the defendants again. Clarence Norris, one of the Scottsboro Boys, challenged his second conviction on appeal because the state had failed to allow blacks to serve on juries. The evidence established that in Jackson County, Alabama, no black had ever served on any grand or petit (trial) jury. “That testimony in itself made out a prima facie case of the denial of the equal protection which the Constitution guarantees,” Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes wrote for the Court in Norris v. Alabama (1937). The Court ruled 8–0 in favor of Norris. (Justice James C. McReynolds did not participate in the case.)

A poster advertising a meeting held on April 14, 1931, to protest the death penalty of Haywood Patterson, one of the Scottsboro Boys. Hulton Archive/Getty Images.

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