Scott v. Illinois

LOCATION:Magoffin Avenue, El Paso

DOCKET NO.: 77-1177
DECIDED BY: Burger Court (1975-1981)
LOWER COURT: Supreme Court of Illinois

CITATION: 440 US 367 (1979)
ARGUED: Dec 04, 1978
DECIDED: Mar 05, 1979

Gerri Papushkewych – Argued the cause for respondent
John S. Elson – Argued the cause for the petitioner

Facts of the case

Scott was convicted in a bench trial of shoplifting and fined $50. The statute applicable to his case set the maximum penalty at a $500 fine and/or one year in jail.


Did the Sixth and Fourteenth Amendments require Illinois to provide Scott with trial counsel?

Media for Scott v. Illinois

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement – March 05, 1979 in Scott v. Illinois

Warren E. Burger:

Thank you, Mr. Justice Rehnquist.

William H. Rehnquist:

Chief, I’m not through.

You gave me one other case to announce.

Warren E. Burger:

Excuse me, Mr. Justice Rehnquist.

William H. Rehnquist:

It’s Scott against Illinois which involves the question of whether or not the right to counsel is established in Argersinger against Hamlin seven years ago should be extended.

In Argersinger, we held that an indigent may not be imprisoned unless at his trial he was afforded the right of assistance of counsel at the State’s expense.

Since that time, there’s been some difference among state courts and in some of the other federal courts as to whether Argersinger fully defined the right to appointed counsel or whether there might be other circumstances where the State might be required to appoint counsel, such as when imprisonment is an authorized penalty under statute but not actually imposed on the defendant in question.

The petitioner in this case was convicted, an Illinois of shoplifting merchandise value that less than $150.

He was fined $50 after a trial before a judge but was not imprisoned.

He argued in this case that because imprisonment is a possible penalty for shoplifting in Illinois, the State should have been required to provide him with an attorney at the State’s expense even though he was not sentenced to any imprisonment.

The Illinois Supreme Court rejected his claim.

It held that the appointment of counsel was not warranted by this Court’s opinion in Argersinger.

And we granted certiorari in order to resolve the conflicting views on the meaning of that opinion and of the right to counsel claim.

Today, we agree with the Supreme Court of Illinois that our 1972 opinion in Argersinger against Hamlin did indeed set the limits of the accused indigent’s right to counsel.

We think that imprisonment is so severe of sanction that it warrants special status for Sixth Amendment and Fourteenth Amendment purposes.

The actual imprisonment line drawn in Argersinger has proved reasonably workable whether there’s any extension we believe would create confusion and imposed unpredictable and necessarily substantial cause on 50 quite diverse states.

We therefore hold that the Sixth and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution require only that no indigent criminal defendant be sentenced to a term of imprisonment unless the State has afforded him the right to assistance of appointive counsel in his defense.

The judgment of the Supreme Court of Illinois is accordingly affirmed.

Mr. Justice Powell while joining the opinion of the Court has filed a separate concurring opinion.

Mr. Justice Brennan has filed a dissenting opinion in which Mr. Justice Marshall and Mr. Justice Stevens joined.

Mr. Justice Blackmun has filed a dissenting opinion.

Warren E. Burger:

Thank you Mr. Justice Rehnquist.