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Law School Case Brief

Douglas v. California - 372 U.S. 353, 83 S. Ct. 814 (1963)


For purposes of determining when a state must provide counsel for an indigent defendant's appeal, a state can, consistently with Fourteenth Amendment, provide for differences so long as the result does not amount to a denial of due process or an invidious discrimination. Absolute equality is not required; lines can be are drawn. But where the merits of the one and only appeal an indigent has as of right are decided without benefit of counsel, an unconstitutional line is drawn between rich and poor. 


Defendants William Douglas and Bennie Will Meyes were tried in a California state court on numerous felony charges of robbery and assault. A single public defender was appointed to represent them. At the commencement of the trial, the public defender filed a motion for a continuance, but the motion was denied. Thereafter, defendants dismissed the public defender and renewed their motions for separate counsel and for a continuance. These motions were also denied; defendants were subsequently convicted. On appeal, the district court of appeal affirmed their convictions after denying their request for appointment of counsel under a California rule of criminal procedure authorizing such denial where, after an independent investigation of the record, the appellate court determined that appointment of counsel would be helpful to neither defendant nor the court. Defendants' petition for a hearing was denied by the Supreme Court of California. Defendants were granted a writ of certiorari.


Was assistance of counsel on first appeal a fundamental right of an indigent accused?




The Supreme Court of the United States vacated the state appellate court's judgment and remanded the matter for further proceedings. The Court ruled that a procedure like the one used by the state appellate court in which an indigent defendant was denied counsel on appeal unless he first made a preliminary showing of merit did not comport with fair procedure. In the instant case, where defendants were denied counsel on appeal, shows that the discrimination was not between "possibly good and obviously bad cases," but between cases where the rich man could require the court to listen to argument of counsel before deciding on the merits, but a poor man could not. There was lacking that equality demanded by the Fourteenth Amendment where the rich man, who appealed as of right, enjoyed the benefit of counsel's examination into the record, research of the law, and marshalling of arguments on his behalf, while the indigent, already burdened by a preliminary determination that his case was without merit, was forced to shift for himself. The indigent, where the record was unclear or the errors were hidden, had only the right to a meaningless ritual, while the rich man had a meaningful appeal.

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