In re Gault

At issue in In re Gault (1967) was the constitutionality of juvenile court proceedings. The U.S. Supreme Court, in its only case on point, held that juveniles have a right to notice of the charges against them as well as the rights to counsel, to confront and crossexamine witnesses, and to exercise the privilege against self-incrimination.

Gault is noteworthy as an important part of the due process revolution of the 1960s, during which the guarantees of the Bill of Rights were made applicable to the states. Gault was a landmark because by affording procedural due process rights to juveniles, the very nature of the juvenile process was irrevocably changed.

Facts of the Case

Fifteen-year-old Gerald Gault, who was already on a sixmonth probation order, was accused of making an obscene phone call to a neighbor. Because he was subject to juvenile court proceedings in Arizona, officials did not provide Gault with the due process notifications that were ordinarily accorded adults in criminal matters after he was picked up and taken into custody without notice to his parents. Prior to the hearing, neither Gault nor his parents received notice about the specific charges that he faced.

At the hearing, there were no sworn witnesses, and not even the complainant appeared. Additionally, officials neither made nor saved a record of the hearing, and Gault’s oral admissions were used against him as evidence. The juvenile court judge adjudicated Gault delinquent and committed him to the state industrial school until he reached the age of 21, unless he was discharged earlier.

Because there was no appeal of juvenile proceedings under Arizona law, Gault’s parents filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus, contending that the juvenile proceedings were unconstitutional. Gault’s parents unsuccessfully appealed to the Supreme Court of Arizona contending that Gault was denied due process of law under the Fourteenth Amendment because of the unlimited discretion of the court and the denial of his basic rights. The court affirmed the dismissal of the parents’ claim.

The Court’s Ruling

On further review, the Supreme Court, reversing in favor of the parents, ruled that juveniles were entitled to due process under the Fourteenth Amendment. The Court was clear in its resolve, stating that neither the Fourteenth Amendment nor the Bill of Rights is for adults alone. Rather, the Court noted that the juvenile court’s exercise of power as the state under parens patriae is not unlimited.

The Supreme Court reasoned that when a youth is adjudicated delinquent and deprived of freedom, procedural due process requirements should attach. Indeed, the Court acknowledged that the gravity of Gault’s sentence turned on his being a juvenile, not an adult. Had Gault committed the same offense when he was 18 or older, the Court pointed out, he would have been sentenced to a punishment of a $50 fine or a maximum of two months in jail. In determining what process was due to ensure fair treatment, the Court found that juveniles who are subject to delinquency hearings were entitled to notice of the specific charges against them, a right to legal counsel, the privilege against self-incrimination, and the right to confront and cross-examine witnesses. The sole dissenter in Gault, Justice Stewart (Justice Harlan dissented in part), argued that because the purpose of juvenile court was correction, not punishment, constitutional procedural safeguards should not have applied.

The Court was able to see that Gault’s consignment to the state institution was the result of a number of careless errors. As the Court indicated, juvenile proceedings may provide the worst of both worlds when youth are neither allowed the protections given adults nor given the rehabilitative and solicitous care typically reserved for children. The Court thus repudiated the old paternalistic view of juvenile proceedings under parens patriae in order to provide procedural fairness in instances where youth faced the loss of liberty.

The Supreme Court’s concern with procedural due process was echoed in later cases involving fundamental fairness in educational policies for students in public schools. In Goss v. Lopez (1975), for example, the Court was of the opinion that students who face expulsions and other exclusions from school may be entitled to varying levels of procedural due process. In Goss, the Court suggested that for suspensions of more than 10 days, the Fourteenth Amendment would require notice and an opportunity to be heard, at a minimum.

The Court thus stopped short of ordering greater due process for exclusions of 10 days or more, but states have since intervened to provide students with statutory procedural due process rights under such circumstances. In both Goss and In re Gault, the Court concluded that when students faced the substantial loss of liberty interests, their rights were best protected when officials safeguarded their rights to procedural due process.

Deborah Curry

See also Goss v. Lopez; Juvenile Courts; Parens Patriae

Further Readings

  • Bass, E. (2003). Missed opportunity in Gault. University of Chicago Law Review, 70, 39–53. 
  • Wilkinson, J. H., III. (1975). Goss v. Lopez: The Supreme Court as superintendent. The Supreme Court Review, 25, 71–72. 

Legal Citations

  • Goss v. Lopez, 419 U.S. 565 (1975). 
  • In re Gault, 387 U.S. 1 (1967).