Brief Fact Summary. Co-petitioners, Meyes and Douglas (the “petitioners”), were jointly represented by a public defender. They were tried and convicted of thirteen felonies in California. The petitioners appealed to the California District Court of Appeal and the California Supreme Court. The United State Supreme Court (“Supreme Court”) granted certiorari.
Synopsis of Rule of Law. Indigent petitioners are entitled to assistance of counsel in a first appeal of right.
Issue. At issue was whether assistance of counsel during the first appeal of right is a fundamental right?
Held. Indigent petitioners are entitled to appointed counsel at the appellate level.
Dissent. Justice Tom Clark (“J. Clark”) believes that California’s practice of requiring the District Court of Appeal to first review appeals, appointing counsel only in cases where the Court determined there might be a meritorious appeal, satisfies the requirement that the states afford adequate and effective appellate review to all indigent defendants. He does not believe that the Equal Protection Clause of the United States Constitution (“Constitution”) nor the Due Process Clause of the Constitution requires the result reached by the majority, especially where it has been shown that the majority of in forma pauperis appeals are frivolous.
Justice John Harlan (“J. Harlan”) joined by Justice Potter Stewart (“J. Stewart”) Opined that this case should be judged solely on Due Process Clause grounds, stating that the Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution is inapposite to the issue. First, discussing the Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution, J. Harlan noted that states are prohibited under the Equal Protection Clause from discriminating between rich and poor in the formulation and application of law; however, the Equal Protection Clause does not prevent the States from adopting laws that, when applied generally, may affect the poor more harshly than the rich. Due Process requirements were satisfied by the California procedure because California’s procedure did not deny anyone an appeal. It only denied court appointed counsel as a matter of right in cases in which the appeal clearly had not merit. Ultimately J. Harlan concludes that he cannot agree that the Constitution prohibits a State, in seeking to redre
ss economic imbalances, is prohibited from taking reasonable steps to guard against needless expense.
Discussion. The majority reasons that denying an indigent counsel on appeal results in discrimination against the indigent. The Constitution does not tolerate discrimination. California’s present system is discriminatory because a person who can afford counsel is able to submit briefs and partake in oral argument before the court makes a decision on the merits. One who cannot afford an attorney has his appeal judged on the merits based upon the bare record from the lower court hoping that pages will reveal blatant injustices.
The Supreme Court clarifies that it is dealing only with the first appeal from a criminal conviction and is not making any holdings with regard to discretionary appeals or mandatory review beyond the stage in the appellate process at which the claims have once been presented by a lawyer and passed upon by an appellate court. The court finds that where the merits of the one and only appeal an indigent has as of right are decided without the benefit of counsel, an unconstitutional line has been drawn between rich and poor.