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Johnson v. Zerbst - Significance, Supreme Court Requires That Counsel Be Appointed, Federal Court Of Appeals

criminal appellant decision defendants


John A. Johnson


Fred G. Zerbst, Warden, U.S. Penitentiary, Atlanta, Georgia

Appellant's Claim

That the court must appoint lawyers to represent indigent defendants in federal criminal cases.

Chief Lawyer for Appellant

Elbert P. Tuttle

Chief Lawyer for Appellee

Bates Booth

Justices for the Court

Hugo Lafayette Black (writing for the Court), Pierce Butler, James Clark McReynolds, Stanley Forman Reed

Justices Dissenting

Louis D. Brandeis, Charles Evans Hughes, Owen Josephus Roberts, Harlan Fiske Stone (Benjamin N. Cardozo did not participate)


Washington, D.C.

Date of Decision

23 May 1938


The Supreme Court held that counsel must be appointed for all defendants in federal criminal trials who cannot afford to hire their own attorneys.

Related Cases

  • Powell v. Alabama, 287 U.S. 45 (1932).
  • Gideon v. Wainwright, 372 U.S. 335 (1963).
  • Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436 (1966).
  • Argersinger v. Hamlin, 407 U.S. 25 (1972).


The Federal Judiciary Home Page. http://www.uscourts.gov.

Further Readings

  • Bradley, Craig M. The Failure of the Criminal Procedure Revolution. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1993.
  • Galloway, John. The Supreme Court & The Rights of the Accused. New York, NY: Facts on File, 1973.
  • Garcia, Alfredo. The Sixth Amendment in Modern American Jurisprudence: A Critical Perspective. New York, NY: Greenwood Press, 1992.
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over 10 years ago

I apologize. That's what comes from working on memory. After re-reading the case I find that the prosecutor was a state district attorney in the federal court. Your post is correct. Please disregard my last

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over 10 years ago

My point is only a minor one. Johnson was not told that South Carolina would not appoint counsel in non-capital cases. This was a federal case at the trial and appellate levels, not a state case. It was the federal government that declined to appoint counsel. The rule in Johnson v. Zerbst, that counsel must be appointed in non-capital cases did not apply to the states until Gideon v. Wainright.