In Griffin v. Illinois, 351 U.S. 12 (1956), the Court addressed the question of whether a state may, under the due process and equal protection clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment, deny a means of effective review on appeal to defendants who cannot afford the cost while granting it to those who can. The problem arose because, under Illinois law, all defendants who wanted to appeal their convictions were required to purchase the stenographic transcript of the lower court proceedings. Aside from indigent defendants sentenced to death, all defendants needing a transcript were required to buy it themselves.
In Griffin, the defendants had been convicted of armed robbery and filed a motion in the court asking that a certified copy of the record be given to them at state expense. They were too poor to buy it and it was required for them to get an appeals court to review their convictions. The court refused to order that the record be produced at state expense. The defendants appealed, contending that the failure to provide them with a transcript deprived them of due process and equal protection under the Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. The Illinois appeals courts upheld the denial. However, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed with the defendants.
In reaching its decision, the Court first looked at history and noted that, since the Magna Carta in 1215, courts have sought to guarantee equal application of the criminal law. It emphasized the importance of the concept of equal treatment to the U.S. system, explaining that ‘‘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, 309 U.S. 227, 241). Accordingly, the Court explained, ‘‘a state can no more discriminate on account of poverty than on account of religion, race, or color.’’ Thus, although a state need not provide for review on appeal at all, a state that does allow for appeals cannot do so in a way that discriminates on the basis of poverty.
As the Court pointed out, all states provide some method of appeal from criminal convictions, and statistics show that a ‘‘substantial proportion’’ of state criminal convictions are reversed. Accordingly, the Court recognized that ‘‘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.’’ In a wellknown phrase, the Court held that ‘‘There can be no equal justice where the kind of trial a man gets depends on the amount of money he has.’’
In a separate opinion, Justice Frankfurter concurred. He warned, however, to pay attention to the ‘‘admonition of de Tocqueville not to confuse the familiar with the necessary.’’ As Justice Frankfurter pointed out, the right to appeal has never been held to be a fundamental right that must be afforded by the state courts. In fact, there were no appeals for the first one hundred years of U.S. history and until 1907 in England. Agreeing that discrimination based on poverty is unconstitutional, Justice Frankfurter stated, ‘‘Neither the fact that a State may deny the right to appeal altogether nor the right of a state to make an appropriate classification, based on differences in crimes and their punishment, nor the right of a state to lay down conditions it deems appropriate for criminal appeals, sanctions differentiations by a State that have no relation to the rational policy of criminal appeal or authorizes the imposition of conditions that offend the deepest presuppositions of our society.’’
Justices Burton and Minton, joined by Justices Reed and Harlan, dissented. While they did not dispute the ‘‘desirability of the policy of supplying an indigent defendant with a free transcript,’’ they did not agree that the constitution required that the states do this. First, the dissenters held that since due process does not even require an appeal, it could not be a denial of due process to allow for some differences among defendants. As to the equal protection claim, the dissenters would have held that the state could differentiate between its treatment of capital and noncapital defendants. Accordingly, the dissenters explained that a state had no duty to make sure every defendant was economically equal. After all, the Court observed, in reality some defendants can afford better lawyers than others, some can afford better investigations than others, and, of course, some can afford bail and some cannot. The Constitution does not require that the states fix this. The dissenters also disagreed with the majority’s application of its holding to invalidate past state convictions. That is, the dissenters would have held that the Court’s holding was not to be applied retroactively.
Justice Harlan dissented in a separate opinion, adding to the dissenting opinion of Justices Burton and Minton. According to Justice Harlan, this was not a good case to decide the due process and equal protection issues because it was possible under the state system that the defendants could have gotten appellate review by other procedures. Therefore, there was no need for Supreme Court review, and the Court should have left the case alone. On the merits of the issues, however, were they to be decided, Justice Harlan would have held that the state had no obligation to ‘‘alleviate the consequences of differences in economic circumstances that exist wholly apart from any state action.’’ As to the issue of fairness under the Due Process Clause, Justice Harlan believed it was not arbitrary or unfair for the state to refuse to pay for transcripts in noncapital cases. In such cases, review can be adequately provided by other means and the consequences are not as significant as in capital cases.
References and Further Reading
See also Due Process; Equal Protection of Law (XIV); Right to Counsel