Betts v. Brady

Following is the case brief for Betts v. Brady, 316 U.S. 455 (1942)

Case Summary of Betts v. Brady:

  • The State of Maryland indicted Betts for robbery.
  • Betts could not afford an attorney and asked the court to appoint counsel for him.
  • The court refused, and Betts represented himself at his robbery trial.
  • Betts was ultimately convicted and sentenced to eight years in prison.
  • Betts petitioned for a writ of habeas corpus.  The state courts denied relief.
  • The U.S. Supreme Court affirmed the denial of relief, holding that the lack of counsel for Betts was not a denial of fundamental due process.

Betts v. Brady Case Brief

Statement of the Facts:

Betts was charged with robbery.  At his arraignment, Betts told the judge that he could not afford an attorney, and he asked that one be appointed for him.  The trial court denied the request.  Betts was then tried without a jury, and Betts handled his own defense.  During the trial, Betts cross examined witnesses, put on witnesses of his own, and tried to fashion an alibi defense.  At the end of trial, the court found Betts guilty of robbery and sentenced Betts to eight years in prison.

Procedural History:

  • Betts petitioned for a writ of habeas corpus in state court.
  • The state courts ultimately denied relief.
  • The U.S. Supreme Court granted certiorari.

Issue and Holding:

Does a criminal defendant in state court have a right to have counsel appointed for him if he cannot afford a lawyerNo.


The decision of the Judge of the Court of Appeals of Maryland is affirmed.

Rule of Law or Legal Principle Applied:

The Sixth Amendment is not incorporated to the states through the Fourteenth Amendment, therefore an indigent criminal defendant in state court does not have a constitutional right to counsel.


The Court’s opinion begins with a discussion of how the case arrived before the Supreme Court.  It appears that Betts should not have filed his habeas petition in state court.  Yet, given the importance of the constitutional question, the Court was open to hearing the case, despite the unorthodox way the issue made its way to the Court.

The more important issue, however, is the right to counsel.  With regard to that, the Court reasoned that the states were not uniform in how they handled appointing counsel for indigent defendants.  Accordingly, the Court determined that the lack of consensus among the states demonstrated that appointing counsel for indigent defendants in all criminal cases is not a fundamental right.

Further, the Supreme Court decisions that held that it was error not to appoint counsel – the cases on which Betts relied – were not applicable to Betts because those prior cases were examples of egregious lapses of justice on the part of the state courts.  With Betts, however, he was a mature man who was allowed to defend himself in court, and Betts did so.

Finally, the Court noted that the Sixth Amendment’s right to counsel has not been incorporated to the states through the Fourteenth Amendment.  Therefore, a more flexible review of due process is permitted, and in this case, Betts was not denied due process.

Concurring and Dissenting Opinions:

Dissenting Opinion (Black):

As a threshold matter, the Sixth Amendment’s right to counsel should be incorporated to the states through the Fourteenth Amendment.  Many dissents have suggested it, but the Court majority has yet to adopt that approach.

In addition, even reviewing the case on basic due process principles, it is clear that Betts’ right to due process was violated here.  Betts is a farm worker with little education.  While he did present a defense, he was not able to put on an effective defense that would satisfy fundamental notions of due process.

Further, the right to counsel is fundamental.  A person who gets less of a chance because of his poverty runs counter to this country’s promise of “equal justice under law.”  He should have been given appointed counsel to help him.


Betts v. Brady is a landmark decision less for its own holding, and more because it was the case that was overruled 20 years later by the famous case Gideon v. Wainwright, which required appointed counsel for indigent defendants in any criminal case.  Indeed, the underpinnings of Gideon are clear in the dissent in Betts.  It just took a few more years before the Court would come around to requiring counsel for all indigent defendants in state or federal criminal cases.

Student Resources:

Read the Court’s Full Opinion