North v. Russell

LOCATION: North Carolina State Capitol

DOCKET NO.: 74-1409
DECIDED BY: Burger Court (1975-1981)
LOWER COURT: Kentucky Supreme Court

CITATION: 427 US 328 (1976)
ARGUED: Dec 09, 1975
DECIDED: Jun 25, 1976

Charles E. Goss - for appellant
Robert L. Chenoweth - for appellees

Facts of the case


Media for North v. Russell

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - December 09, 1975 in North v. Russell

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - June 25, 1976 in North v. Russell

Warren E. Burger:

I have the judgment to announce in 74-1409, North against Russell and for reasons stated in an opinion filed with the clerk this morning and the judgments of the Court of Appeals of Kentucky is affirmed.

Mr. Justice Brennan concurred in the judgment.

Mr. Justice Stevens took no part in the consideration or decision of the case.

Mr. Justice Stewart join by Mr. Justice Marshall filed a dissenting opinion.

Potter Stewart:

As the Chief Justice has just indicated I have filed a dissenting opinion which Mr. Justice Marshall has joined.

In this case, a man named Lonnie North was held into a Kentucky Criminal court and there he was tried, convicted, and sentenced to a term of imprisonment by Judge C. B. Russell.

Judge Russell is a coal miner without any legal training or education whatever.

Mr. Justice Marshall and I believe that a trial before such a judge that results in the imprisonment of the defendant is constitutionally intolerable.

It deprives the accused of his right to the effective assistance of counsel guaranteed by the Sixth and Fourteenth Amendments, and deprives him as well of due process of law.

Beginning with the capital case of Powell against Alabama, extending through the felony case of Gideon against Wainwright and culminating in the misdemeanor case of Argersinger against Hamlin.

The Court's decisions have firmly established that a person who has not been accorded the constitutional right to the assistance of counsel cannot be sentenced to even one day of imprisonment.

But the essential presupposition of this basic constitutional right is that the judge conducting the trial will be able to understand what the defendant's lawyer is talking about.

For if the judge himself is ignorant of the law, then a lawyer for the defendant will be able to do little or nothing to prevent an unjust conviction.

In a trial before such a judge, the constitutional right to the assistance of counsel thus becomes a hollow mockery.

In this case Judge Russell denied a motion for trial by jury, although under Kentucky law North was clearly entitled to a jury trial upon request.

And after finding North guilty, Judge Russell proceeded to impose a sentence of imprisonment, although such a sentence was clearly unauthorized by Kentucky law.

But even if it were not possible to demonstrate in a particular case that the lay judge had been incompetent or the trial egregiously unfair, I think that any trial before a wholly untrained lay judge that results in the defendant's imprisonment violates the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

The Court seems to say that these constitutional deficiencies can all be swept under the rug and forgotten because the convicted defendant may have a trial De novo before a qualified judge.

Mr. Justice Marshall and I cannot agree.

In the case of Ward against Village of Monroeville, the Court made clear that “the State's trial court procedure cannot be deemed constitutionally acceptable, simply because the State eventually offers a defendant an impartial adjudication. Petitioner is entitled to a neutral and detached judge in the first instance.”

The Court today would distinguish the Ward case as directed at the need for independent, neutral, and detached judgment, not at legal training.

But surely there can be no meaningful constitutional difference between a trial that is fundamentally unfair because of the judge's possible bias, and a trial that is fundamentally unfair because of the judge's ignorance of the law.

At Runnymede in 1215 King John pledged to his barons that he would not make any Justiciaries, Constables, Sheriffs, or Bailiffs, but from those who understand the law of the realm.

Today, more than 750 years later, the Court leaves that promise unkept.

Mr. Justice Marshall and I respectfully dissent.