Coppedge v. United States

Citation369 U.S. 438,8 L.Ed.2d 21,82 S.Ct. 917
Decision Date30 April 1962
Docket NumberNo. 157,157
PartiesMark COPPEDGE, Jr., Petitioner, v. UNITED STATES
CourtUnited States Supreme Court

[Syllabus from pages 438-440 intentionally omitted] Bennett Boskey, Washington, D.C., for the petitioner.

Carl W. Belcher, Washington, D.C., for the respondent.

Mr. Chief Justice WARREN delivered the opinion of the Court.

Tried and convicted in a Federal District Court for an offense against the United States, petitioner applied for leave to appeal his conviction to the Court of Appeals in forma pauperis. His application was denied. The case presents this question: What standard is to be applied by the lower federal courts in passing upon such applications? The articulation of a usable standard has been the source of considerable recent litigation.1 And, while we recognize that no single word or group of words can provide a precise formula that will dispose of every case, we think it appropriate to indicate in somewhat greater detail than in the past, the approach a Court of Appeals must take toward an indigent's application for leave to take a direct appeal from his criminal conviction in forma pauperis.

Statutory provision for litigation in forma pauperis in the federal courts is made by 28 U.S.C. § 1915, 28 U.S.C.A. § 1915, authorizing '(a)ny court of the United States' to allow indigent persons to prosecute, defend or appeal suits without prepayment of costs. Before discussing our understanding of the proper manner in which a Court of Appeals is to exercise its authority to allow a criminal appeal in forma pauperis, we believe it would be helpful to indicate briefly the law applicable to criminal appeals generally. The provisions of § 1915 can be understood and applied in such cases only when read together with the other provisions of the Judicial Code and the Federal Rules governing criminal appeals.

Present federal law has made an appeal from a District Court's judgment of conviction in a criminal case what is, in effect, a matter of right.2 That is, a defendant has a right to have his conviction reviewed by a Court of Appeals, and need not petition that court for an exercise of its discretion to allow him to bring the case before the court. The only requirements a defendant must meet for perfecting his appeal are those expressed as time limitations within which various procedural steps must be completed. First, a timely notice of appeal must be filed in the District Court to confer jurisdiction upon the Court of Appeals over the case.3 Subsequently, designations of the transcript, a record on appeal and briefs must be filed in the appropriate forum.4

The indigent defendant will generally experience no material difficulty in filing a timely notice of appeal.5 But thereafter he is immediately faced with court fees for docketing his appeal in the Court of Appeals and with the cost of preparing the record, including a stenographic transcript of at least portions of the trial proceedings.6 If he is unable to meet either or both of these expenses, he can perfect his appeal only by applying for leave to appeal in forma pauperis. The application, to be made to the District Court in which the defendant was convicted,7 must conform to the requirements of 28 U.S.C. § 1915(a), 28 U.S.C.A. § 1915(a) and include, in affidavit form, the defendant's representations of poverty, a statement of the case, and his belief that he is entitled to redress. The sole statutory language by which the District Court is guided in passing upon the application provides '(a)n appeal may not be taken in forma pauperis if the trial court certifies in writing that it is not taken in good faith.' 28 U.S.C. § 1915(a), 28 U.S.C.A. § 1915(a).

What meaning should be placed on the 'good faith' of which the statute speaks? In the context of a criminal appeal, we do not believe it can be read to require a District Court to determine whether the would-be appellant seeks further review of his case in subjective good faith, i.e., good faith from his subjective point of view.8 Such a construction would deprive the legislation of sensible meaning, there probably being no convicted defendant who would not sincerely wish a Court of Appeals to review his conviction. Further, a subjective standard might suggest that only persons who, in good conscience, could insist on their innocence, are to be entitled to a review of their convictions without payment of costs. We believe this interpretation of the statute is not required by reason nor is it consistent with the sound administration of criminal justice in the federal courts. We hold, instead, that 'good faith' in this context must be judged by an objective standard. We consider a defendant's good faith in this type of case demonstrated when he seeks appellate review of any issue not frivolous. In so doing, we note that if in forma pauperis litigation is attempted for reasons that may genuinely be characterized as the litigant's 'bad faith,' express authority exists in 28 U.S.C. § 1915(d), 28 U.S.C.A. § 1915(d) for dismissal of the cause as frivolous.9

If the District Court finds the application is not in good faith, and therefore denies leave to appeal in forma pauperis, the defendant may seek identical relief from the Court of Appeals.10 In considering such an appli- cation addressed to it, the Court of Appeals will have before it what is usually the pro se pleading of a layman and the certificate of a district judge that the applicant lacks 'good faith' in seeking appellate review. The District Court's certificate is not conclusive, although it is, of course, entitled to weight.11 However, we have recognized that the materials before the Court of Appeals at this stage of the proceedings are generally inadequate for passing upon the defendant's application. Nevertheless, if from the face of the papers he has filed, it is apparent that the applicant will present issues for review not clearly frivolous, the Court of Appeals should then grant leave to appeal in forma pauperis, appoint counsel to represent the appellant and proceed to consideration of the appeal on the merits in the same manner that it considers paid appeals. If, on the other hand, the claims made or the issues sought to be raised by the applicant are such that their substance cannot adequately be ascertained from the face of the defendant's application, the Court of Appeals must provide the would-be appellant with both the assistance of counsel and a record of sufficient completeness to enable him to attempt to make a showing that the District Court's certificate of lack of 'good faith' is in error and that leave to proceed with the appeal in forma pauperis should be allowed.12 If, with such aid, the applicant then presents any issue for the court's consideration not clearly frivolous, leave to proceed in forma pauperis must be allowed.

In so holding we have been impelled by considerations beyond the corners of 28 U.S.C. § 1915, 28 U.S.C.A. § 1915, considerations that it is our duty to assure to the greatest degree possible within the statutory framework for appeals created by Congress, equal treatment for every litigant before the bar.13 We have expressed this view in a case comparable to the one before us here by holding that

'(u)nless the issues raised (by the indigent seeking leave to appeal in forma pauperis) are so frivolous that the appeal would be dismissed in the case of a nonindigent litigant, Fed.Rules Crim.Proc. 39(a), 18 U.S.C.A., the request of an indigent for leave to appeal in forma pauperis must be allowed.' Ellis v. United States, 356 U.S. 674, 675, 78 S.Ct. 974, 975, 2 L.Ed.2d 1060.

The point of equating the test for allowing a pauper's appeal to the test for dismissing paid cases, is to assure equality of consideration for all litigants. The equation is intended to place the burdens of proof and persuasion in all cases on the same party in these cases, on the Government. Since our statutes and rules make an appeal in a criminal case a matter of right, the burden of showing that that right has been abused through the prosecution of frivolous litigation should, at all times, be on the party making the suggestion of frivolity. It is not the burden of the petitioner to show that his appeal has merit, in the sense that he is bound, or even likely, to prevail ultimately. He is to be heard, as is any appellant in a criminal case, if he makes a rational argument on the law or facts. It is the burden of the Government, in opposing an attempted criminal appeal in forma pauperis, to show that the appeal is lacking in merit, indeed, that it is so lacking in merit that the court would dismiss the case on motion of the Government, had the case been docketed and a record been filed by an appellant able to afford the expense of complying with those requirements.14 If it were the practice of a Court of Appeals to screen the paid appeals on its docket for frivolity, without hearing oral argument, reviewing a record of the trial proceedings or considering full briefs, paupers could, of course, be bound by the same rules. But, if the practice of the Court of Appeals is to defer rulings on motions to dismiss paid appeals until the court has had the benefit of hearing argument and considering briefs and an adequate record, we hold it must no less accord the poor person the same procedural rights.

Two additional factors have relevance to our view of the proper disposition of motions for leave to perfect criminal appeals in forma pauperis. These factors are the foundation for Rule 39(d) of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure, specifying that preference shall be given by the Courts of Appeals to criminal cases. This Rule, first, acknowledges the importance to the sovereign to the accused and to society of a criminal prosecution. When society acts to deprive one of its members of his life, liberty or property, it takes its most awesome steps. No general respect...

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