334 U.S. 672 (1948), 40, Wade v. Mayo

Docket Nº:No. 40
Citation:334 U.S. 672, 68 S.Ct. 1270, 92 L.Ed. 1647
Party Name:Wade v. Mayo
Case Date:June 14, 1948
Court:United States Supreme Court

Page 672

334 U.S. 672 (1948)

68 S.Ct. 1270, 92 L.Ed. 1647




No. 40

United States Supreme Court

June 14, 1948

Submitted October 13, 1947

Resubmitted March 9, 1948




1. Imprisoned under a Florida state court conviction of a noncapital offense, petitioner sought release by habeas corpus in a state court, claiming denial of his federal constitutional right to counsel. An appeal from a judgment denying relief was dismissed by the state supreme court on the merits. At the time of the state supreme court's action, its judgment apparently could have rested on an adequate nonfederal ground, but, in a later case, the court made clear that it had decided the federal constitutional question.

Held: although petitioner did not seek certiorari from this Court to review the judgment of the state supreme court, it was within the discretion of the federal district court to entertain an application by petitioner for a writ of habeas corpus and to proceed to a determination of petitioner's federal constitutional claim. Pp. 674-682.

(a) The failure of petitioner to appeal from the judgment of conviction does not bar relief, since it appears that a defendant who is denied counsel in a noncapital case in Florida may raise the constitutional question either by appeal from the conviction or by habeas corpus, and pursuit of one of the two alternative remedies satisfies the requirement of exhaustion of state remedies. Pp. 677-678.

(b) This Court accepts the pronouncement by the state supreme court in a later case that its decision in petitioner's habeas corpus

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proceeding rested on the merits of the constitutional question, and not on a ruling that a direct appeal was the only way to raise the issue. Pp. 678-679.

(c) The reasons for the rule requiring exhaustion of the state remedy cease when the highest state court has rendered a decision on the merits of the federal constitutional claim; the problem then is the nature and extent of the federal review of the constitutional issue. Pp. 679-680.

(d) The fact that a state prisoner did not seek review by this Court of a judgment of the highest state court denying his claim of federal right may be a relevant consideration for the district court in determining whether to entertain a subsequent habeas corpus petition, but it does not absolutely bar exercise of the district court's discretion to entertain such a petition. P. 680.

(e) Where it is apparent or even possible that a state prisoner's petition to this Court for certiorari to review a ruling by the highest state court on his claim of federal right would be denied because the judgment appears to be based on an adequate nonfederal ground, failure to file the petition should not prejudice the right to file a habeas corpus application in a federal district court. Pp. 680-681.

(f) The flexible nature of the writ of habeas corpus counsels against erecting a rigid procedural rule that has the effect of imposing a new jurisdictional limitation on the writ. P. 681.

(g) Where the matter is otherwise within the jurisdiction of the district court, it is within the discretion of that court to weigh the failure to seek certiorari against the miscarriage of justice that might result from a failure to grant relief. P. 681.

(h) The fear that the exercise of the district court's power to entertain habeas corpus petitions in such circumstances as these might give rise to frequent instances of a single federal judge upsetting the judgment of a state court, often the highest court of the state, is without foundation. Pp. 681-682.

2. At the commencement of his trial in a Florida state court for the noncapital offense of breaking and entering, petitioner, claiming to be without funds, requested the trial judge to appoint counsel to represent him. The request was refused, the trial proceeded, and petitioner was convicted and sentenced to imprisonment for five years. Petitioner, after exhausting his state remedy, applied to the federal district court for habeas corpus, claiming denial of his federal constitutional right to counsel. The district court found that, at the time of the trial in the state court, petitioner was an

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inexperienced youth unfamiliar with court procedure and not capable of adequately representing himself. The district court concluded that the refusal of petitioner's request that counsel be appointed for him constituted a denial of due process, contrary to the Fourteenth Amendment of the Federal Constitution.

Held: the findings and conclusion of the district court were not clearly erroneous, and it was error for the Circuit Court of Appeals to reverse the district court's judgment. Pp. 682-684.

(a) Refusal to appoint counsel for a defendant in a criminal case who, by reason of age, ignorance or mental capacity, is incapable of adequately representing himself, though the prosecution be of a relatively simple nature, is a denial of due process of law under the Fourteenth Amendment. P. 684.

(b) Whether the failure to appoint counsel in a noncapital case in a state court constitutes a denial of due process under the Fourteenth Amendment does not depend upon whether the law of the state requires such an appointment. P. 684.

158 F.2d 614 reversed.

In a habeas corpus proceeding in which petitioner sought release from imprisonment under a state court judgment of conviction, the federal district court granted relief on the ground that a federal constitutional right had been denied petitioner at his trial in the state court. The Circuit Court of Appeals reversed. 158 F.2d 614. This Court granted certiorari. 331 U.S. 801. Reversed, p. 684.

MURPHY, J., lead opinion

MR. JUSTICE MURPHY delivered the opinion of the Court.

This case centers on two issues: (1) whether it was proper for a federal district court to entertain a habeas corpus petition filed by a state prisoner who, having secured a ruling from the highest state court on his federal

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constitutional claim, had failed to seek a writ of certiorari in this Court; (2) whether the federal district court correctly held that the prisoner had been deprived of his constitutional right to counsel at the trial for a noncapital state offense.

On February 19, 1945, petitioner Wade was arrested in Palm Beach County, Florida, upon the charge of breaking and entering. He was held in jail until brought to trial before a jury on March 14, 1945, in the Criminal Court of Record of Palm Beach County. Just before the trial started, he asked the trial judge to appoint counsel to represent him, claiming that it was financially impossible to employ one himself. The judge refused the request, and the trial proceeded. The jury returned a verdict of guilty on the same day, and Wade was immediately sentenced to serve five years in the state penitentiary.

Wade then obtained the aid of counsel. On March 16, two days after the trial and conviction, this counsel filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus in the Circuit Court of Palm Beach County. The petition claimed that the refusal of the judge to appoint counsel for Wade at the trial was a denial of the due process of law guaranteed to him by the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States. The writ was issued, a hearing was had, and the Circuit Court thereupon granted the motion of the state's attorney to quash the writ. This action was taken on the authority of two decisions of the Supreme Court of Florida holding that, under Florida law, a trial court has no duty to appoint counsel to represent the accused in a noncapital case. Watson v. State, 142 Fla. 218, 194 So. 640; Johnson v. State, 148 Fla. 510, 4 So.2d 671.

Wade's counsel appealed the decision of the Circuit Court to the Supreme Court of Florida. In the latter court, the state's Attorney General filed a motion to dismiss

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the appeal as frivolous. Two points were emphasized in this motion: (1) Wade had not appealed from his conviction, or even filed a motion for a new trial; (2) the Circuit Court had quashed the habeas corpus writ on the authority of the two cases cited in its order. The Supreme Court, upon consideration of this motion, granted the motion and dismissed the appeal. No written opinion was filed, and no indication was given whether the appeal was dismissed for one or both of the reasons advanced by the Attorney General. The date of this action was May 14, 1945. No attempt was made to secure a writ of certiorari from this Court.

Nearly a year later, on May 8, 1946, a petition for a writ of habeas corpus was filed in the United States District Court for the Southern District of Florida. This petition alleged that the refusal to appoint counsel for Wade at the trial deprived him of his constitutional right to due process [68 S.Ct. 1273] of law. And the petition further stated that this point had not been raised by way of appeal from the conviction because of the belief that the Watson and Johnson cases made it plain that the Supreme Court of Florida

has not power of reversal of a conviction because defendants were not represented by counsel, and, for that reason, failed to obtain a fair trial, except in capital cases, and this case is not a capital case.

Such was the reason given for the belief that an appeal would have been useless and of no avail. But the petition pointed out that, in order to exhaust all his remedies in the state courts before applying to a federal court, Wade had pursued a writ of habeas corpus all the way through the Florida courts.

The District Court granted the writ, and a hearing was held on May 17, 1946. Both Wade and the trial judge testified as to the events surrounding the refusal to appoint counsel. After hearing this testimony and the argument of counsel, the District Court concluded that,

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under the circumstances, the denial of Wade's...

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