1967 May 15

Supreme Court Declares State Juvenile Court Procedures Unconstitutional


In the case of In re Gault, decided on this day, the Supreme Court ruled that many of the procedures in juvenile courts were unconstitutional. These provisions included the right be be notified of the charges, the right to confront and cross-examine witnesses, protection against self-incrimination, the right to counsel, and the right to appeal decisions. These, of course, were protections long guaranteed to adults in criminal courts. Underlying the procedures the Court declared unconstitutional was the philosophy of parens patriae, the belief that juvenile courts should act as a parent and consequently be free of formal legal constraints.

A year earlier, in Kent v. United States on March 21, 1966, the Supreme Court had declared the juvenile court procedures in the District of Columbia to be unconstitutional. Washington, DC, was governed by federal law, and the Gault decision on this day applied to juvenile court procedures in the states.

The irony of the case was that the ACLU argued the case before the Supreme Court, but ACLU Founder Roger Baldwin had been a pioneer in the juvenile court movement over fifty years earlier. He co-authored the book, Juvenile Courts and Probation (1914).

Justice Fortas for the Court: “Unfortunately, loose procedures, high-handed methods and crowded court calendars, either singly or in combination, all too often, have resulted in depriving some juveniles of fundamental rights that have resulted in a denial of due process.”

Hear future ACLU President Norman Dorsen argue the case before the Supreme Court: http://www.oyez.org/cases/1960-1969/1966/1966_116

Read: David S. Tanenhaus, The Constitutional Rights of Children: In Re Gault and Juvenile Justice (2011)

Watch a 2007 forum on the 40th Anniversary of the Gault decision: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AeGlnH7gTZo

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