The Stone Court (1941–46)

Commerce Clause

What did the Stone Court rule with respect to whether the Sixth Amendment right to assistance of counsel could be extended to the states?

The Sixth Amendment requires the assistance of counsel for criminal defendants charged with federal crimes. A key question was whether this requirement was extended to the states via the Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process Clause. The Stone Court answered this question in its 1942 decision Betts v. Brady. Smith Betts, a Maryland farmhand, was charged with robbery in Carroll County, Maryland. Betts asked the trial judge for an attorney. The trial judge denied the request, stating that indigents could receive court-appointed attorneys only for cases of murder and rape. Betts sued, contending that he had a constitutional right to an attorney.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled 6–3 that the Constitution did not require Betts to be provided with an attorney. Justice Owen J. Roberts reasoned that the history of state practices revealed that “in the great majority of the states, it has been the considered judgment of the people, their representatives and their courts that appointment of counsel is not a fundamental right, essential to a fair trial.” Roberts wrote that due process did not require all state criminal defendants to be afforded an attorney.

Three justices dissented—Hugo Black, William O. Douglas, and Frank Murphy. Black wrote that the right to counsel was “fundamental” and necessary to satisfy the dictates of due process. Black’s view would eventually command a majority of the Court, as Betts would be overruled more than twenty years later in Gideon v. Wainwright (1963).


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