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Ross v. Moffit

Citation. Ross v. Moffitt, 417 U.S. 600, 94 S. Ct. 2437, 41 L. Ed. 2d 341, 1974)
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Brief Fact Summary.

This was a consolidated appeal of two separate cases in which indigent defendants were convicted in North Carolina trial courts. Both appealed and were represented by court appointed counsel before the North Carolina Court of Appeals. Each defendant thereafter pursued other discretionary post conviction remedies and were denied court appointed counsel.

Synopsis of Rule of Law.

The same concepts of fairness and equality, which require counsel in a first appeal of right, require counsel in other and subsequent discretionary appeals.


This case is the result of the consolidation of two separate cases in which an indigent defendant was convicted in the trial court of the respective counties of Mecklenburg and Guilford, North Carolina. Each defendant pursued his appeal of right to the North Carolina Court of Appeals, where each was represented by court appointed counsel. The convictions were affirmed.
Each defendant proceeded to pursue discretionary appeals and habeas corpus relief. The Mecklenburg defendant was denied court appointed counsel by the Mecklenburg County Superior Court and habeas corpus petitions in state and federal court. After exhausting all state remedies, the defendant appealed to the Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit and then appealed the denial of that Court

The Guilford defendant was permitted to be represented by court appointed counsel in his appeal to the North Carolina Supreme Court. He was, however, denied court appointed counsel in his attempts to seek other post conviction relief.


At issue is whether Douglas v. California, which requires appointment of counsel for indigent defendants on their first appeal of right, should be extended to require counsel for discretionary state appeals and for applications for review in this Court?


Neither the due process clause nor the equal protection clause require states to appoint counsel to indigent defendants in discretionary appeals or other post conviction relief.


Justice William Douglas (“J. Douglas”) joined by Justice William Brennan (“J. Brennan”) and Justice Thurgood Marshall (“J. Marshall”) would have affirmed the judgment below, agreeing that there is “no logical basis for differentiation between appeals of right and permissive review procedures in the context of the Constitution and the right to counsel.”


Justice William Rhenquist, writing for the majority, first notes that over the preceding twenty years, the Supreme Court of the United States (“Supreme Court”) has given extensive consideration to the rights of indigent persons on appeal. The Suprem Court notes that many financial barriers to the appellate process have been invalidated under the proposition that a State cannot arbitrarily cut off appeal rights for indigents, while leaving open avenues for appeal for more affluent persons. The Supreme Court further notes that the decision in Douglas further expanded that ideal and held that indigent persons are entitled to court ordered representation at first appeals of right. However, the precise rational for Douglas has never been explicitly stated, but appears to rest on the Equal Protection Clause or the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution. Due process emphasizes fairness between the State and individuals dealing with the State, while
equal protections emphasizes the disparate treatment by a State and classes of individuals whose situations are arguably indistinguishable.
The Supreme Court does not believe the Due Process Clause requires appointment of counsel for discretionary appeals because of the fundamental difference between a trial and an appeal. At a trial, the State’s purpose is to convert a person presumed innocent to one found guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. At an appeal, it is the defendant who is trying to overturn a finding of guilt. Unfairness here will only result if indigents are singled out by the State and denied meaningful access to the appellate system because of their poverty. This issue is better considered under equal protection analysis.

The Equal Protection Clause does not require absolute equality or precisely equal advantages. It does require that the state appellate system be “free of unreasoned distinctions”. The question is one of degrees, not one of absolutes. The Supreme Court concludes that the Equal Protection Clause, when interpreted in the context of cases such as the instant case, does not require North Carolina to provide free counsel for indigent defendants seeking discretionary appeal or other post conviction relief. In reaching this conclusion, the Supreme Court analyzes the North Carolina statutes governing discretionary appeals and the function served by discretionary appeals in North Carolina. The Supreme Court concludes that just because a particular service might be of benefit to an indigent defendant, does not mean that the service is constitutionally required.

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