Johnson v. Zerbst
304 U.S. 458 (1938), argued 4 Apr. 1938, decided 23 May 1938 by vote of 6 to 2; Black for the Court, Reed concurring, McReynolds and Butler in dissent, Cardozo not participating. Johnson was convicted in federal court of feloniously possessing, uttering, and passing counterfeit money. At the time of trial, he was indigent and unable to employ an attorney to represent him. While imprisoned, he filed for habeas corpus relief in a federal district court, arguing that he had been deprived of his Sixth Amendment right to counsel. The district court denied his claim and the court of appeals affirmed.
The Supreme Court held that under the Sixth Amendment, the federal courts have no jurisdiction to deprive an accused of his life or liberty unless he has the assistance of counsel or the trial court clearly determines, on the record, that he has intelligently and competently waived his right to counsel. In effect, the Court required that counsel be appointed for indigent defendants in all federal criminal cases. Six years earlier in Powell v. Alabama (1932), the Court had issued a more limited ruling applying to state courts, holding that the Fourteenth Amendment's Due Process Clause required that counsel be appointed in state courts when the defendant was charged with a capital offense and was incapable of making his own defense. The right to counsel in state courts was later expanded in Gideon v. Wainwright (1963) and Argersinger v. Hamlin (1972).
Susan E. Lawrence