Griffin v. Illinois
351 U.S. 12 (1956)
[Plurality: Black, Warren (C.J.), Douglas, and Clark. Concurring: Frankfurter. Dissenting: Burton, Minton, Reed, and Harlan.]
Mr. Justice Black announced the judgment of the Court and an opinion in which Warren, C.J., Douglas, J., and Clark, J., join.
Illinois law provides that “Writs of error in all criminal cases are writs of right and shall be issued of course.” The question presented here is whether Illinois may, consistent with the Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses of the 14th Amendment, administer this statute so as to deny adequate appellate review to the poor while granting such review to all others.
The petitioners, Griffin and Crenshaw, were tried together and convicted of armed robbery in the Criminal Court of Cook County, Illinois. Immediately after their conviction they filed a motion in the trial court asking that a certified copy of the entire record, including a stenographic transcript of the proceedings, be furnished them without cost. They alleged that they were “poor persons with no means of paying the necessary fees to acquire the Transcript and Court Records needed to prosecute an appeal.” These allegations were not denied. Under Illinois law in order to get full direct appellate review of alleged errors by a writ of error it is necessary for the defendant to furnish the appellate court with a bill of exceptions or report of proceedings at the trial certified by the trial judge. As Illinois concedes, it is sometimes impossible to prepare such bills of exceptions or reports without a stenographic transcript of the trial proceedings. Indigent defendants sentenced to death are provided with a free transcript at the expense of the county where convicted. In all other criminal cases defendants needing a transcript, whether indigent or not, must themselves buy it. The petitioners contended in their motion before the trial court that failure to provide them with the needed transcript would violate the Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses of the 14th Amendment. The trial court denied the motion without a hearing. [The Illinois appellate courts affirmed.] . . .
Counsel for Illinois concedes that these petitioners needed a transcript in order to get adequate appellate review of their alleged trial errors. There is no contention that petitioners were dilatory in their efforts to get appellate review, or that the Illinois Supreme Court denied review on the ground that the allegations of trial error were insufficient. We must therefore assume for purposes of this decision that errors were committed in the trial which would merit reversal, but that the petitioners could not get appellate review of those errors solely because they were too poor to buy a stenographic transcript. Counsel for Illinois denies that this violates either the Due Process or the Equal Protection Clause, but states that if it does, the Illinois Post-Conviction statute entitles petitioners to a free transcript. The sole question for us to decide, therefore, is whether due process or equal protection has been violated.
Providing equal justice for poor and rich, weak and powerful alike is an age-old problem. People have never ceased to hope and strive to move closer to that goal. This hope, at least in part, brought about in 1215 the royal concessions of Magna Charta: “To no one will we sell, to no one will we refuse, or delay, right or justice. No free man shall be taken or imprisoned, or disseised, or outlawed, or exiled, or anywise destroyed; nor shall we go upon him nor send upon him, but by the lawful judgment of his peers or by the law of the land.” These pledges were unquestionably steps toward a fairer and more nearly equal application of criminal justice. In this tradition, our own constitutional guaranties of due process and equal protection both call for procedures in criminal trials which allow no invidious discriminations between persons and different groups of persons. Both equal protection and due process emphasize the central aim of our entire judicial system — all people charged with crime must, so far as the law is concerned, “stand on an equality before the bar of justice in every American court.” Chambers v. Florida (1940).
Surely no one would contend that either a State or the Federal Government could constitutionally provide that defendants unable to pay court costs in advance should be denied the right to plead not guilty or to defend themselves in court. Such a law would make the constitutional promise of a fair trial a worthless thing. Notice, the right to be heard, and the right to counsel would under such circumstances be meaningless promises to the poor. In criminal trials a State can no more discriminate on account of poverty than on account of religion, race, or color. Plainly the ability to pay costs in advance bears no rational relationship to a defendant’s guilt or innocence and could not be used as an excuse to deprive a defendant of a fair trial. Indeed, a provision in the Constitution of Illinois of 1818 provided that every person in Illinois “ought to obtain right and justice freely, and without being obliged to purchase it, completely and without denial, promptly and without delay, conformably to the laws.”
There is no meaningful distinction between a rule which would deny the poor the right to defend themselves in a trial court and one which effectively denies the poor an adequate appellate review accorded to all who have money enough to pay the costs in advance. It is true that a State is not required by the Federal Constitution to provide appellate courts or a right to appellate review at all. But that is not to say that a State that does grant appellate review can do so in a way that discriminates against some convicted defendants on account of their poverty. Appellate review has now become an integral part of the Illinois trial system for finally adjudicating the guilt or innocence of a defendant. Consequently at all stages of the proceedings the Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses protect persons like petitioners from invidious discriminations.
All of the States now provide some method of appeal from criminal convictions, recognizing the importance of appellate review to a correct adjudication of guilt or innocence. Statistics show that a substantial proportion of criminal convictions are reversed by state appellate courts. Thus to deny adequate review to the poor means that many of them may lose their life, liberty or property because of unjust convictions which appellate courts would set aside. Many States have recognized this and provided aid for convicted defendants who have a right to appeal and need a transcript but are unable to pay for it. A few have not. Such a denial is a misfit in a country dedicated to affording equal justice to all and special privileges to none in the administration of its criminal law. There can be no equal justice where the kind of trial a man gets depends on the amount of money he has. Destitute defendants must be afforded as adequate appellate review as defendants who have money enough to buy transcripts. . . .
We do not hold, however, that Illinois must purchase a stenographer’s transcript in every case where a defendant cannot buy it. The Supreme Court may find other means of affording adequate and effective appellate review to indigent defendants. For example, it may be that bystanders’ bills of exceptions or other methods of reporting trial proceedings could be used in some cases. The Illinois Supreme Court appears to have broad power to promulgate rules of procedure and appellate practice. We are confident that the State will provide corrective rules to meet the problem which this case lays bare.
The judgment of the Supreme Court of Illinois is vacated and the cause is remanded to that court for further action not inconsistent with the foregoing paragraph. . . .
Mr. Justice Frankfurter, concurring in the judgment. . . .
[W]hen a State deems it wise and just that convictions be susceptible to review by an appellate court, it cannot by force of its exactions draw a line which precludes convicted indigent persons, forsooth erroneously convicted, from securing such a review merely by disabling them from bringing to the notice of an appellate tribunal errors of the trial court which would upset the conviction were practical opportunity for review not foreclosed.
To sanction such a ruthless consequence, inevitably resulting from a money hurdle erected by a State, would justify a latter-day Anatole France to add one more item to his ironic comments on the “majestic equality” of the law. “The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread.” John Cournos, A Modern Plutarch, p. 27. . . .
The Court ought neither to rely on casuistic arguments in denying constitutional claims, nor deem itself imprisoned within a formal, abstract dilemma. The judicial choice is not limited to a new ruling necessarily retrospective, or to rejection of what the requirements of equal protection of the laws, as now perceived, require. For sound reasons, law generally speaks prospectively. More than a hundred years ago, for instance, the Supreme Court of Ohio, confronted with a problem not unlike the one before us, found no difficulty in doing so when it concluded that legislative divorces were unconstitutional. Bingham v. Miller (Ohio 1848). In arriving at a new principle, the judicial process is not impotent to define its scope and limits. Adjudication is not a mechanical exercise nor does it compel “either/or” determinations.
We should not indulge in the fiction that the law now announced has always been the law and, therefore, that those who did not avail themselves of it waived their rights. It is much more conducive to law’s self-respect to recognize candidly the considerations that give prospective content to a new pronouncement of law. That this is consonant with the spirit of our law and justified by those considerations of reason which should dominate the law, has been luminously expounded by Mr. Justice Cardozo, shortly before he came here and in an opinion which he wrote for the Court. See Address of Chief Judge Cardozo, 55 Report of New York State Bar Ass’n, 263, 294 et seq., and Great Northern R. Co. v. Sunburst Oil & Refining Co. (1932). Such a molding of law, by way of adjudication, is peculiarly applicable to the problem at hand. The rule of law announced this day should be delimited as indicated.
Mr. Justice Burton and Mr. Justice Minton, whom Mr. Justice Reed and Mr. Justice Harlan join, dissenting.
While we do not disagree with the desirability of the policy of supplying an indigent defendant with a free transcript of testimony in a case like this, we do not agree that the Constitution of the United States compels each State to do so with the consequence that, regardless of the State’s legislation and practice to the contrary, this Court must hold invalid state appellate proceedings wherever a required transcript has not been provided without cost to an indigent litigant who has requested that it be so provided. It is one thing for Congress and this Court to prescribe such procedure for the federal courts. It is quite another for this Court to hold that the Constitution of the United States has prescribed it for all state courts.
In the administration of local law the Constitution has been interpreted as permitting the several States generally to follow their own familiar procedure and practice. In so doing this Court has recognized the widely differing but locally approved procedures of the several States. Whether approving of the particular procedures or not, this Court has treated them largely as matters reserved to the States and within the broad range of permissible ‘due process’ in a constitutional sense.
Illinois, as the majority admits, could thus deny an appeal altogether in a criminal case without denying due process of law. To allow an appeal at all, but with some difference among convicted persons as to the terms upon which an appeal is exercised does not deny due process. It may present a question of equal protection. The petitioners urge that point here. . . .
[C]ertainly Illinois does not deny equal protection to convicted defendants when the terms of appeal are open to all, although some may not be able to avail themselves of the full appeal because of their poverty. Illinois is not bound to make the defendants economically equal before its bar of justice. For a State to do so may be a desirable social policy, but what may be a good legislative policy for a State is not necessarily required by the Constitution of the United States. Persons charged with crimes stand before the law with varying degrees of economic and social advantage. Some can afford better lawyers and better investigations of their cases. Some can afford bail, some cannot. Why fix bail at any reasonable sum if a poor man can’t make it?
The Constitution requires the equal protection of the law, but it does not require the States to provide equal financial means for all defendants to avail themselves of such laws.
Mr. Justice Black’s opinion is not limited to the future. It holds that a past as well as a future conviction of crime in a state court is invalid where the State has failed to furnish a free transcript to an indigent defendant who has sought, as petitioner did here, to obtain a review of a ruling that was dependent upon the evidence in his case. This is an interference with state power for what may be a desirable result, but which we believe to be within the field of local option. . . .
Mr. Justice Harlan, dissenting.
Much as I would prefer to see free transcripts furnished to indigent defendants in all felony cases, I find myself unable to join in the Court’s holding that the 14th Amendment requires a State to do so or to furnish indigents with equivalent means of exercising a right to appeal. The importance of the question decided by the Court justifies adding to what Mr. Justice Burton and Mr. Justice Minton have written my further grounds for dissenting and the reasons why I find the majority opinions unsatisfying. . . .
According to petitioners’ tabulation, no more than 29 States provide free transcripts as of right to indigents convicted of non-capital crimes. Thus the sweeping constitutional pronouncement made by the Court today will touch the laws of at least 19 States and will create a host of problems affecting the status of an unknown multitude of indigent convicts. . . .
It is said that a State cannot discriminate between the “rich” and the “poor” in its system of criminal appeals. That statement of course commands support, but it hardly sheds light on the true character of the problem confronting us here. . . .
The Court thus holds that, at least in this area of criminal appeals, the Equal Protection Clause imposes on the States an affirmative duty to lift the handicaps flowing from differences in economic circumstances. That holding produces the anomalous result that a constitutional admonition to the States to treat all persons equally means in this instance that Illinois must give to some what it requires others to pay for. . . .
[T]he issue here is not the typical equal protection question of the reasonableness of a “classification” on the basis of which the State has imposed legal disabilities, but rather the reasonableness of the State’s failure to remove natural disabilities. The Court holds that the failure of the State to do so is constitutionally unreasonable in this case although it might not be in others. I submit that the basis for that holding is simply an unarticulated conclusion that it violates “fundamental fairness” for a State which provides for appellate review, and thus apparently considers such review necessary to assure justice, not to see to it that such appeals are in fact available to those it would imprison for serious crimes. That of course is the traditional language of due process and I see no reason to import new substance into the concept of equal protection to dispose of the case, especially when to do so gives rise to the all-too-easy opportunity to ignore the real issue and solve the problem simply by labeling the Illinois practice as invidious “discrimination.”
Has there been a violation of the Due Process Clause? . . .
We are all agreed that no objection of substance can be made to the provisions for free transcripts in capital and constitutional cases. The due process challenge must therefore be directed to the basic step of permitting appeals at all without also providing an in forma pauperis procedure. But whatever else may be said of Illinois’ reluctance to expend public funds in perfecting appeals for indigents, it can hardly be said to be arbitrary. A policy of economy may be unenlightened, but it is certainly not capricious. And that it has never generally been so regarded is evidenced by the fact that our attention has been called to no State in which in forma pauperis appeals were established contemporaneously with the right of appeal. I can find nothing in the past decisions of this Court justifying a holding that the 14th Amendment confines the States to a choice between allowing no appeals at all or undertaking to bear the cost of appeals for indigents, which is what the Court in effect now holds. . . .
As I view this case, it contains none of the elements hitherto regarded as essential to justify action by this Court under the 14th Amendment. In truth what we have here is but the failure of Illinois to adopt as promptly as other States a desirable reform in its criminal procedure. Whatever might be said were this a question of procedure in the federal courts, regard for our system of federalism requires that matters such as this be left to the States. However strong may be one’s inclination to hasten the day when in forma pauperis criminal procedures will be universal among the States, I think it is beyond the province of this Court to tell Illinois that it must provide such procedures.
. “Ye Shall do no unrighteousness in judgment: thou shalt not respect the person of the poor, nor honour the person of the mighty: but in righteousness shalt thou judge thy neighbor.” Leviticus, c. 19, v. 15.
. Dissenting opinions here argue that the Illinois law should be upheld since by its terms it applies to rich and poor alike. But a law nondiscriminatory on its face may be grossly discriminatory in its operation. For example, this Court struck down the so-called “grandfather clause” of the Oklahoma Constitution as discriminatory against Negroes although that clause was by its terms nondiscriminatory. Guinn v. United States (1915). . . .