In re Gault

views updated May 23 2018

In re Gault

In the landmark juvenile law decision In re Gault (1967), the Supreme Court established that children are persons within the scope of the Fourteenth Amendment, and as such, they are entitled to its procedural protections. The decision set forth the legal principle that although minors are not entitled to every constitutional protection afforded to adults, they are not entirely without constitutional protection. Perhaps the most famous statement to emerge from this Supreme Court decision was that made by Justice Abe Fortas: "Neither the Fourteenth Amendment nor the Bill of Rights is for adults alone."

Gerald Gault, a fifteen-year-old boy, was charged with making a lewd telephone call to one of his female neighbors. Following a hearing on the charge, the juvenile court judge determined that Gault's actions were a disruption of the peace and that he had exhibited a pattern of engaging in immoral behaviors. The judge committed Gault to the Arizona State Industrial School (a juvenile detention center) until the age of twenty-one. During this hearing, Gault was not offered the same procedural protections to which he would have been entitled had he been tried in an adult criminal court. His treatment, however, was consistent with the goals of juvenile justice during the first half of the twentieth century. During this era, juvenile justice was seen as reform rather than as criminal punishment; consequently, it was widely believed that the courts' reformative powers would be hampered if they were expected to apply the same constitutional rights to children as to adults. This approach, however, was not without controversy, and the Supreme Court voiced its disapproval in the Gault case.

The Court's decision in Gault established the principle that juvenile courts must observe standard procedures and provide specific protections guaranteed by the Constitution. The Court set forth several procedural requirements for juvenile delinquency proceedings. First, the juvenile and his or her parents must be given written notice of the particular charges brought against him or her, and this notice must be delivered within such time as to permit the juvenile to have a reasonable opportunity to prepare for the hearing. Second, the juvenile and his or her parents must be notified of the juvenile's right to be represented by an attorney, and they must be informed that the court will appoint an attorney if they are unable to afford one. The Court also held that juveniles, like adults, are entitled to the Fifth Amendment's privilege against self-incrimination, and, finally, that juveniles have the right to hear the sworn testimony against them and to confront that testimony through the cross-examination of witnesses.

The Court did not render an opinion regarding the key questions of whether a state must grant a juvenile a right to appeal a finding of delinquency or whether the state must provide an account (either a transcript or audio recording) of the court hearing. However, the Court's affirmative declarations were of far greater importance than these omissions. Because the Court acknowledged limits on the state's power to justify the regulation of juveniles through reliance on the doctrine of parens patriae, In re Gault was a watershed decision for juvenile rights. It is commonly cited as the most important children's rights case.

See also: Law, Children and the.


Krisberg, Barry, and James F. Austin. 1993. Reinventing Juvenile Justice. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.

Mnookin, Robert H. 1985. In the Interest of Children: Advocacy, Law Reform, and Public Policy. New York: W.H. Freeman and Company.

Ramsey, Sarah H., and Douglas E. Abrams. 2001. Children and the Law in a Nutshell. St. Paul, MN: West Group.

Simonsen, Clifford E., and Marshall S. Gordon III. 1982. Juvenile Justice in America. New York: Macmillan.

Vito, Gennaro F., and Deborah G. Wilson. 1985. The American Juvenile Justice System. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.

Amy L. Elson

Gault, In re

views updated May 23 2018


Originally, juvenile court was a place for the informal resolution of a broad range of matters concerning children. The hearings were not adversarial. Instead, they focused on the juvenile's best interests. A juvenile was brought to the juvenile court, the prosecution presented evidence, the juvenile and other witnesses gave testimony, and the juvenile court judge made a decision based on the perceived best interests of the juvenile.

In the same spirit of informality, juvenile courts provided fewer procedural protections than did adult courts. Juveniles did not have the right to a court-appointed attorney or to notice of charges of criminal behavior. They did not have the right to confront accusers and cross-examine witnesses. They did not have the right to a written record of the proceedings or to appeal the juvenile court judgment.

The problem with this lack of procedural protections was that a juvenile risked losing his or her liberty for several years. The best interests of the child usually involved placement in a secure reformatory or some other secure facility until the age of eighteen or, in some states, twenty-one. This amounted to a deprivation of liberty similar to that resulting from a prison sentence.

In 1967 the U.S. Supreme Court issued a decision that would change dramatically the character of juvenile courts. In In re Gault, 387 U.S. 1, 87 S. Ct. 1428, 18 L. Ed. 2d 527, fifteen-year-old Gerald Gault was committed to a reform school until age twenty-one for allegedly making an obscene phone call to a neighbor. Gault had been found delinquent without receiving notice of the charges or the assistance of an attorney. In addition, Gault had been interviewed by a probation officer without having an attorney present, and the statements made in this interview were submitted as proof that Gault had made the obscene phone call.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Gault's commitment to the reformatory constituted a deprivation of liberty. This meant that Gault should have been provided with most of the procedural protections afforded to adults in criminal prosecutions. According to the Court in Gault, "[U]nbridled discretion, however benevolently motivated, is frequently a poor substitute for principle and procedure."

The purpose of the Gault decision was to make juvenile proceedings more fair to the juvenile. The decision accomplished this, but it also made juvenile proceedings more adversarial. With the increased procedural protections, juveniles became more capable of resisting commitment to secure reformatories, and it became more difficult for the juvenile courts summarily to obtain control over juveniles.

The adversarial tenor in contemporary juvenile courts is thus an unfortunate by-product of the decision in Gault. Prosecutors must now work harder to persuade the juvenile court to find in favor of the state so that the system may take control of the juvenile. They must shift the focus of juvenile court proceedings away from the needs of the juvenile and onto the offense. This shifted focus is similar to the focus of proceedings in adult criminal court, and it amounts to a reversal of the traditional emphasis in juvenile court.

further readings

Bernard, Thomas J. 1992. The Cycle of Juvenile Justice. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

Buss, Emily. 2003. "The Missed Opportunity in Gault." University of Chicago Law Review 70 (winter): 39–54.

Cooper, N. Lee, Patricia Puritz, and Wendy Shang. 1998. "Fulfilling the Promise of In re Gault: Advancing the Role of Lawyers for Children." Wake Forest Law Review 33 (fall): 651–79.


Adversary System; Children's Rights; Criminal Procedure; Juvenile Law.

In Re Gault

views updated May 08 2018


IN RE GAULT, 387 U.S. 1 (1967), addressed the question of whether the criminal justice provisions of the Bill of Rights applied to minors. Chief Justice Earl Warren predicted this decision would become the Magna Carta for juveniles. The case involved Gerald Gault, a fifteen-year-old probationer, who had been arrested for making an obscene telephone call. Gault was held by the police while he was interrogated for several days, and, following the sort of informal proceeding then typical in juvenile courts, was sentenced to a state school until he turned twenty-one.

Justice Abe Fortas viewed Gault's case as a vehicle for reforming what he regarded as a failed juvenile justice system. The way to improve a system that simply bred criminals, Fortas believed, was to insist that juveniles be given many of the same rights that the Constitution guaranteed to adults. His Gault opinion declared that the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment required giving juveniles written notice of the charges against them, allowing them to confront their accusers, and informing them that they had a privilege against self-incrimination and a right to be represented by an attorney (an appointed one if they were indigent). The effect of Gault was to affirm that children have constitutional rights, although their rights are somewhat more limited than the rights of adults.


Kalman, Laura. Abe Fortas: A Biography. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1990.

Walker, Nancy E., Catherine M. Brooks, and Lawrence S. Wrightsman. Children's Rights in the United States: In Search of a National Policy. Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Sage, 1999

Michal R.Belknap

See alsoDue Process of Law ; Juvenile Courts .

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