In re Gault, 387 U.S. 1 (1967)
In re Gault is the landmark 1967 case in which the U.S. Supreme Court extended several constitutional rights to children prosecuted within juvenile justice systems. While these rights had long been accorded adults prosecuted in criminal courts, American courts had allowed states to skirt such protections in their separate juvenile tribunals.
Fifteen-year-old Gerald Gault was arrested in Arizona in 1964 for making a lewd phone call to a neighbor. He was apprehended while his parents were at work and held several nights at a juvenile detention home. The procedure of the case reflected the informal nature of many states’ approaches to juvenile justice. He was not provided specific notice of the charges against him. He was not advised of, or extended, his right to counsel. He was not told of his right to remain silent. He was not allowed to confront witnesses against him. The victim never even appeared in court to testify. His hearing was never recorded or transcribed and, pursuant to state law, he had no right to appeal.
The Supreme Court, which had shown increasing concern for rights of children in the prior term’s case, Kent v. United States, 383 U.S. 541 (1966) (holding that Washington, D.C.’s provision for transferring juveniles to adult court was inadequate), concluded that this level of informality was constitutionally inadequate. As Justice Fortas argued in his majority opinion, ‘‘under our Constitution, the condition of being a boy does not justify a kangaroo court.’’
The Court concluded that there was still room for a juvenile justice system to operate in a distinct form from the criminal courts, but held that such courts must accord certain basic rights. It ruled that Gault’s constitutional rights were violated with respect to his right to fair notice, counsel, silence, and confrontation. On the other hand, the Court reserved judgment on whether a child has a constitutional right to an appeal.
In some respects, Gault represents the Court’s high-water mark in the protection of children’s rights in delinquency. For example, a few terms later, in McKeiver v. Pennsylvania, 403 U.S. 528 (1971), the Court held that children being prosecuted in juvenile courts were not entitled to a jury trial.
Since Gault, many states have chosen to narrow the jurisdiction of their juvenile courts, reserving them exclusively for very young offenders and those charged with less serious crimes. Other aspects of these courts have changed as well. In many states, juvenile proceedings have been opened to public view. Juvenile records, once sealed, are increasingly available to the public or for use in later adult proceedings. Some critics argue that these changes are the logical result of Gault. In this view, states were willing to treat children less harshly than adults, but only on the condition that they be allowed to impose swift, albeit rough, justice. Whatever the merits of this view, the Court made clear in Gault that juvenile justice remains strictly regulated by the Constitution.
DANIEL M. FILLER
Cases and Statutes Cited
- Kent v. United States, 383 U.S. 541 (1966)
- McKeiver v. Pennsylvania, 403 U.S. 528 (1971)