In re Gault


For a highlighted version of the decision, click on the image above.

This decision was the turning point for the rights of juveniles in U.S. Courts. It was the first time that the Supreme Court held that children facing delinquency prosecution have many of the same legal rights as adults in criminal court, including the right to an attorney, the right to remain silent, the right to notice of the charges, and the right to a full hearing on the merits of the case.

At a hearing the next day, the complaining witness was not present. No sworn testimony was heard. No transcript was taken, nor testimony recorded. The judge at the conclusion of the hearing said that he would “think about” what to do. Gerald was returned to the Detention Home, and then released several days later. The judge scheduled a hearing for June 15, three or four days after he was released from detention. The complaining witness, as before, was absent from this hearing. Nonetheless, the judge entered an order that Gerald was delinquent, mandating his incarceration in a residential facility until he turned 21. Arizona law prohibited appeal of juvenile cases.

Had Gerald been an adult when he committed the offense alleged, the maximum punishment would have been a fine of $5 to $50, or imprisonment a two-month maximum jail term. Moreover, he would have received the procedural protections afforded to adults charged with criminal behavior, limiting the possibility of the imposition of any sentence.

The Gaults were unsuccessful in their appeals to higher Arizona courts regarding the unconstitutionality of the process afforded to juveniles in the state. The United States Supreme Court granted certiorari to determine several issues, namely whether Arizona’s Juvenile Code violated the Due Process Clause of the 14th Amendment of the United States Constitution, due to provisions regarding notice; right to counsel; the right to confront witnesses; and the privilege against self-incrimination.

In the majority opinion, Justice Fortas wrote, “The condition of being a boy does not justify a kangaroo court.”

The majority further found that the Constitution required the provision of notice to both the child and the parents or guardians pertaining to the specific charge at issue, sufficient to allow preparation of an adequate defense, and that where a delinquency finding could result in commitment, the child and parents had to be notified of the child’s right to be represented by counsel and the right to counsel free of charge if the family was indigent.  Additionally, the court held that that children, like adults, possess the privilege against self-incrimination, holding that “commitment is a deprivation of liberty. It is incarceration against one’s will, whether it is called ‘criminal’ or ‘civil.’”

Gault QuoteFinally, the Court held “that, absent a valid confession, a determination of delinquency and an order of commitment to a state institution cannot be sustained in the absence of sworn testimony subjected to the opportunity for cross-examination.” This, too, remains a fundamental part of the procedural due process to which young people remain entitled.

The Court elaborated upon the history of the juvenile court—“The early conception of the Juvenile Court proceeding was one in which a fatherly judge touched the heart and conscience of the erring youth by talking over his problems, by paternal advice and admonition.”