Gerald (“Jerry”) Gault was a 15-year-old accused of making an obscene telephone call to a neighbor, Mrs. Cook, on June 8, 1964. After Mrs. Cook filed a complaint, Gault and a friend, Ronald Lewis, were arrested and taken to the Children’s Detention Home. Gault was on probation when he was arrested, after being in the company of another boy who had stolen a wallet from a woman’s purse.
At the time of the arrest related to the phone call, Gault’s parents were at work. The arresting officer left no notice for them and did not make an effort to inform them of their son’s arrest. When Gault’s mother did not find Gault at home, she sent his older brother looking for him. They eventually learned of Gault’s arrest from the family of Ronald Lewis. When Mrs. Gault arrived at the Detention Home, she was told that a hearing was scheduled in juvenile court the following day.
The arresting officer filed a petition with the court on the same day of Gault’s initial court hearing. The petition was not served on Gault or his parents. In fact, they did not see the petition until more than two months later, on August 17, 1964, the day of Gerald’s habeas corpus hearing. The June 9 hearing was informal. Not only was Mrs. Cook not present, but no transcript or recording was made, and no one was sworn in prior to testifying. Gault was questioned by the judge and there are conflicting accounts as to what, if anything, Gault admitted. After the hearing, Gault was taken back to the Detention Home. He was detained for another two or three days before being released. When Gault was released, his parents were notified that another hearing was scheduled for June 15, 1964.
Mrs. Cook was again not present for the June 15th hearing, despite Mrs. Gault’s request that she be there “so she could see which boy that done the talking, the dirty talking over the phone.” Again, no record was made and there were conflicting accounts regarding any admissions by Gault. At this hearing, the probation officers filed a report listing the charge as lewd phone calls. An adult charged with the same crime would have received a maximum sentence of a $50 fine and two months in jail. The report was not disclosed to Gault or his parents. At the conclusion of the hearing, the judge committed Gault to juvenile detention for six years, until he turned 21.
Gault’s parents filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus, which was dismissed by both the Superior Court of Arizona and the Arizona Supreme Court. The Gaults next sought relief in the Supreme Court of the United States. The Court agreed to hear the case to determine the procedural due process rights of a juvenile criminal defendant.
Lower Courts: The proceedings against Gault were conducted by a judge of the Superior Court of Arizona who was designated by his colleagues to serve as a juvenile court judge.
Lower Court Ruling: The juvenile court judge committed Gault to juvenile detention until he attained the age of 21. At that time, no appeal was permitted in juvenile cases by Arizona law; therefore, a habeas petition was filed in the Supreme Court of Arizona and referred to the Superior Court for a hearing. The Superior Court dismissed the petition, and the Arizona Supreme Court affirmed.
The Supreme Court agreed to hear the case to determine the procedural rights of a juvenile defendant in delinquency proceedings where there is a possibility of incarceration.
Reversed and remanded. In its opinion, the Court unanimously overruled Betts v. Brady.
Argued: January 15, 1963
Decided: March 18, 1963
Unanimous Decision: Justice Fortas wrote the opinion of the court. Justices Douglas, Clark, and Harlan each wrote concurring opinions.
In its opinion, the Court underscored the importance of due process, stating that it “is the primary and indispensable foundation of individual freedom” and that “the procedural rules which have been fashioned from the generality of due process are our best instruments for the distillation and evaluation of essential facts from the conflicting…data that life and our adversary methods present.” In re Gault, 387 U.S. 1, 20 (1967). The Court noted that, had Gault been 18 at the time of his arrest, he would have been afforded the procedural safeguards available to adults. The Court closely examined the juvenile court system, ultimately determining that, while there are legitimate reasons for treating juveniles and adults differently, juveniles facing an adjudication of delinquency and incarceration are entitled to certain procedural safeguards under the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.