Powell et al. v. State of Alabama
Decided on Nov. 7, 1932; 287 US 45


The Court ruled that indigent defendants, when charged with a capital crime, must be assigned competent counsel by the court.

I. ISSUES II. CASE SUMMARY III. AMICI CURIAE IV. DECISION V. WIN OR LOSS?
I. ISSUES:

A. Issues Discussed: Right to counsel

B. Legal Question Presented:

Were the defendants, in substance, denied the right of counsel, and if so, did such denial infringe the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment?

II. CASE SUMMARY:

A. Background:

"These cases were argued together and submitted for decision as one case.

The petitioners, hereinafter referred to as defendants, are negroes charged with the crime of rape, committed upon the persons of two white girls..."

The record of the arraignment shows "that on the same day the defendants were arraigned and entered pleas of not guilty. There is a further recital to the effect that upon the arraignment they were represented by counsel. But no counsel had been employed, and aside from a statement made by the trial judge several days later during a colloquy immediately preceding the trial, the record does not disclose when, or under what circumstances, an appointment of counsel was made, or who was appointed.

There was a severance upon the request of the state, and the defendants were tried in three several groups... The juries found defendants guilty and imposed the death penalty upon all. The trial court overruled motions for new trials and sentenced the defendants in accordance with the verdicts. The judgments were affirmed by the state supreme court."

On appeal the US Supreme Court reversed the judgment of the Supreme Court of Alabama.

B. Counsel of Record:
ACLU Side
(Petitioner/Appellant)
Opposing Side
(Respondent/Appellee)
Unavailable Unavailable
C. The Arguments:
ACLU Side
(Petitioner/Appellant)
Opposing Side
(Respondent/Appellee)
Unavailable Unavailable
III. AMICI CURIAE:
ACLU Side
(Petitioner/Appellant)
Opposing Side
(Respondent/Appellee)
Mr. Walter H. Pollak, of New York City, for petitioners. Mr. Thomas E. Knight, Jr., of Montgomery, Ala., for the State of Alabama.
IV. THE SUPREME COURT'S DECISION:

"The record shows that immediately upon the return of the indictment defendants were arraigned and pleaded not guilty. Apparently they were not asked whether they had, or were able to employ, counsel, or wished to have counsel appointed...

It is hardly necessary to say that the right to counsel being conceded, a defendant should be afforded a fair opportunity to secure counsel of his own choice. Not only was that not done here, but such designation of counsel as was attempted was either so indefinite or so close upon the trial as to amount to a denial of effective and substantial aid in that regard...

[T]he necessity of counsel was so vital and imperative that the failure of the trial court to make an effective appointment of counsel was likewise a denial of due process within the meaning of the Fourteenth Amendment... All that it is necessary now to decide, as we do decide, is that in a capital case, where the defendant is unable to employ counsel, and is incapable adequately of making his own defense because of ignorance, feeble-mindedness, illiteracy, or the like, it is the duty of the court, whether requested or not, to assign counsel for him as a necessary requisite of due process of law; and that duty is not discharged by an assignment at such a time or under such circumstances as to preclude the giving of effective aid in the preparation and trial of the case."

The US Supreme Court reversed the judgment of the Supreme Court of Alabama.

Justice Vote: 7 Pro vs. 2 Con

  • Sutherland, G. Pro (Wrote majority opinion)
  • Holmes, O.  Pro (Joined majority opinion)
  • Van Devanter, W.  Pro (Joined majority opinion)
  • Brandeis, L. Pro (Joined majority opinion)
  • Stone, H. Pro (Joined majority opinion)
  • Roberts, O. Pro (Joined majority opinion)
  • Cardozo, B. Pro (Joined majority opinion)
  • Butler, P. Con (Wrote dissenting opinion)
  • McReynolds, J.Con (Wrote dissenting opinion)
  • V. A WIN OR LOSS FOR THE ACLU?

    The ACLU, as counsel of record, urged reversal of the judgment of the Supreme Court of Alabama; the Supreme Court reversed in a vote, giving the ACLU an apparent win.