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ROSS V. MOFFITT, 417 U. S. 600 (1974)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Ross v. Moffitt, 417 U.S. 600 (1974)

Ross v. Moffitt

No. 73-76

Argued April 22, 1974

Decided June 17, 1974

417 U.S. 600


Respondent, an indigent, while represented by court-appointed counsel, was convicted of forgery in state court in two separate cases, and his convictions were affirmed on his appeals of right by the North Carolina Court of Appeals. In one case, he was denied appointment of counsel for discretionary review by the North Carolina Supreme Court, and in the other case, after that court had denied certiorari, was denied appointment of counsel to prepare a petition for certiorari to this Court. Subsequently, Federal District Courts denied habeas corpus relief, but the United States Court of Appeals reversed, holding that respondent was entitled to appointment of counsel both on his petition for review by the State Supreme Court and on his petition for certiorari in this Court.


1. The Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment does not require North Carolina to provide respondent with counsel on his discretionary appeal to the State Supreme Court. Pp. 417 U. S. 609-611.

(a) As contrasted with the trial stage of a criminal proceeding, a defendant appealing a conviction needs an attorney, not as a shield to protect him against being "haled into court" by the State and stripped of his presumption of innocence, but rather as a sword to upset the prior determination of guilt, the difference being significant since, while a State may not dispense with the trial stage without the defendant's consent, it need not provide any appeal at all. Pp. 417 U. S. 610-611.

(b) The fact that an appeal has been provided does not automatically mean that the State then acts unfairly by refusing to provide counsel to indigent defendants at every stage of the way, but unfairness results only if the State singles out indigents and denies them meaningful access to the appellate system because of their poverty. P. 417 U. S. 611.

2. Nor does the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment require North Carolina to provide free counsel for indigent defendants seeking discretionary appeals to the State Supreme Court. Pp. 417 U. S. 611-616. chanroblesvirtualawlibrary

Page 417 U. S. 601

(a) A defendant in respondent's circumstances is not denied meaningful access to the State Supreme Court simply because the State does not appoint counsel to aid him in seeking review in that court, since, at that stage, under North Carolina's multi-tiered appellate system, he will have, at the very least, a transcript or other record of the trial proceedings, a brief in the Court of Appeals setting forth his claims of error, and frequently an opinion by that court disposing of his case, materials which, when supplemented by any pro se submission that might be made, would provide the Supreme Court with an adequate basis for its decision to grant or deny review under its standards of whether the case has "significant public interest," involves "legal principles of major significance," or likely conflicts with a previous Supreme Court decision. Pp. 417 U. S. 614-615.

(b) Both an indigent defendant's opportunity to have counsel prepare an initial brief in the Court of Appeals and the nature of the Supreme Court's discretionary review make the relative handicap that such a defendant may have in comparison to a wealthy defendant, who has counsel at every stage of the proceeding, far less than the handicap borne by an indigent defendant denied counsel on his initial appeal of right, Douglas v. California, 372 U. S. 353. P. 417 U. S. 616.

(c) That a particular service might benefit an indigent defendant does not mean that the service is constitutionally required, the duty of the State not being to duplicate the legal arsenal that may be privately retained by a criminal defendant in a continuing effort to reverse his conviction, but only to assure the indigent defendant, as was done here, an adequate opportunity to present his claims fairly in the context of the State's appellate process. P. 417 U. S. 616.

3. Similarly, the Fourteenth Amendment does not require North Carolina to provide counsel for a convicted indigent defendant seeking to file a petition for certiorari in this Court, under circumstances where the State will have provided counsel for his only appeal as of right, and the brief prepared by such counsel together with one and perhaps two state appellate opinions will be available to this Court in order to decide whether to grant certiorari. Pp. 417 U. S. 616-618.

(a) Since the right to seek discretionary review in this Court is conferred by federal statutes and not by any State, the argument that the State having once created a right of appeal must give all persons an equal opportunity to enjoy the right is, by chanroblesvirtualawlibrary

Page 417 U. S. 602

its terms, inapplicable. Griffin v. Illinois, 351 U. S. 12, and Douglas v. California, supra, distinguished. P. 417 U. S. 617.

(b) The suggestion that a State is responsible for providing counsel to an indigent defendant petitioning this Court simply because it initiated the prosecution leading to the judgment sought to be reviewed is unsupported by either reason or authority. Pp. 417 U. S. 617-618.

483 F.2d 650, reversed.

REHNQUIST, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BURGER, C.J.,and STEWART, WHITE, BLACKMUN, and POWELL, JJ., joined. DOUGLAS, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which BRENNAN and MARSHALL, JJ., joined, post, p. 417 U. S. 619.

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