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Bute v. Illinois


Although this decision was later reversed in 1963 by Gideon v. Wainwright, it provided lower courts with guidance regarding the rights of defendants in noncapital criminal proceedings. Hence, for a period of 15 years, noncapital criminal defendants were adjudicated even if the accused was not aware of the right to counsel and sometimes without being offered the opportunity to be assigned a court-appointed attorney.

In 1938, the petitioner, Roy Bute, was twice-charged with a noncapital felony--taking indecent liberties with children. He pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 20 years in prison for each indictment. Eight years later, while serving his sentence in the Illinois State Penitentiary, he filed an appeal in the Supreme Court of Illinois asking for a review of proceedings and circumstances related to his trial. Bute's argument was that he was unfairly sentenced because he was denied representation by counsel--the court did not appoint an attorney to represent him. He was, therefore, rushed to trial without proper preparation and was not able to mount an adequate defense in court.

At the time he was indicted, Roy Bute, decided to represent himself in the Circuit Court of La Salle County, where the hearing took place. He was charged with taking indecent liberties with children under the age of 15, first with an 8-year-old girl and then with an 11-year-old girl. When Bute entered a guilty plea, the court explained the consequences and penalties which might proceed from his plea. Although the judge admonished that sentencing would proceed immediately if Bute remained steadfast in his guilty plea, Bute nonetheless indicated he understood that proceedings and wanted to continue. Unknowingly, by submitting to the immediate decision and sentencing of the court, Bute effectively waived his right to counsel. The court sentenced him to 20 years for each indictment and he was sent to the Illinois State Penitentiary to serve his sentence.

Eight years later, while serving his first 20-year term, Bute made an appeal to the Supreme Court of Illinois and asked for a rehearing for each one of the charges and sentences adjudicated in the Illinois Supreme Court. Because the justice presiding over the lower court had not advised him of his right to legal assistance, his petition claimed that he was rushed to trial and deprived of a fair, impartial hearing of his case. The right to representation by legal counsel, the petitioner claimed, was a guarantee to which he was entitled according to state and federal constitutions. The Supreme Court of Illinois, however, found no merit in his claim and denied a rehearing.

In preparing their decision, the Supreme Court justices reviewed the statutory provisions under which the state of Illinois administered due process of law and traced the progression and procedural development of the case through Illinois courts. During the period of time in which Bute's trial was adjudicated, criminal case procedure for the state of Illinois was based on 1937 Illinois Revised Statues. Under those provisions, all litigants (especially the accused) were entitled to a specific set of rights: to be heard either in person or through legal counsel; to meet with witnesses; to bring witnesses who would provide supporting testimony; to have a speedy, public trial by jury; and to not be forced into self-incrimination.

The Code of Criminal Procedures for the state of Illinois stipulated that assignment of counsel was at the option of the accused. The Court thus held that a free interpretation of the Illinois code meant the state was not obligated to assign counsel unless a defendant petitioned the court with a specific request for representation. Further, no evidence in the records of the petitioner's case led the justices to believe the petitioner did not have the ability to understand what was being said in court. They concluded that, at the time the trial took place, Roy Bute was fully aware of the crime he committed, was aware of all the facts presented at trial, was cognizant of the proceedings, and fully understood the gravity of the charges/sentences. (In a separate concurring opinion, Justice Vinson further supported the majority's conviction that the petitioner had not been denied due process but had been fairly dealt with under provisions of state law. Roy Bute had appeared before the Illinois court on his own behalf, entered his plea of guilty and "persisted in his desire to do so," even after he had been advised by the court regarding the consequences and penalties which might result.)

The Court found that statutory provisions for criminal case procedure in Illinois courts were consistently applied to the petitioner's case. In comparing and contrasting court protocol of the (Illinois) state and federal courts, the justices found appropriate corollary. From the Sixth Amendment, federal courts derived the practice that in all criminal procedures, the accused had the right to be assisted by legal counsel. While Illinois, at the time of Bute's trial, exercised criminal court procedure uniquely apart from federal practice, the Court found the state, like federal courts, embraced consistent, legal protocol. Cases in which the accused pleaded guilty were labeled "instant cases" according to Illinois statute. Instant cases required that a guilty plea not be entered until the court fully explained the consequences of such a plea. If the accused still persisted in pleading guilty, only then would the plea be accepted and recorded. The court rendered immediate judgment and execution in the same way as if the defendant's case had been presented before a jury and they had rendered a guilty verdict.

Because majority justices felt that Illinois followed consistent procedure in criminal cases, they ruled that the Fourteenth Amendment did not require the courts of Illinois to apply the same practice applied in federal courts. The due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment did not require counsel for Roy Bute's defense because state courts are not obligated by the procedures that federal courts are obligated to follow. Although the justices acknowledged that federal courts were subject to strict guidelines regarding due process and, specifically, the right of legal representation, the justices held that the Fourteenth Amendment did not necessarily require states to provide legal counsel if a defendant did not specifically so request. Neither were state courts (unlike federal courts) even bound to inform a defendant about the right to legal counsel. Moreover, under the provisions of the Tenth Amendment, because each state was entitled to exercise jurisdiction over their own police powers and to control procedure undertaken in criminal trials in their own courts, the majority opinion reasoned that differences could concurrently exist between court protocol and conduct of criminal cases at state and federal level.

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Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1941 to 1953Bute v. Illinois - Significance, Minority Opinion, Impact, Self Representation