Scott v. Illinois

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Scott v. Illinois
Seal of the United States Supreme Court.svg
Argued December 4, 1978
Decided March 5, 1979
Full case name Scott v. Illinois
Citations 440 U.S. 367 (more)
99 S. Ct. 1158; 59 L. Ed. 2d 383; 1979 U.S. LEXIS 3
Prior history Original action filed in U.S. Supreme Court; order to show cause why writ of mandamus should not issue, December, 1801
Subsequent history None
A person may be imprisoned only if given the opportunity to be represented by counsel.
Court membership
Case opinions
Majority Rehnquist, joined by Burger, Stewart, White, Powell
Concurrence Powell
Dissent Brennan, joined by Marshall, Stevens
Dissent Blackmun
Laws applied
U.S. Const. amends. VI, XIV

Scott v. Illinois, 440 U.S. 367 (1979), was a case heard by the Supreme Court of the United States. In Scott, the Court decided whether the Sixth and Fourteenth Amendments required Illinois to provide Scott with trial counsel.


After being denied a request for court-appointed counsel, Scott was convicted in a bench trial of shoplifting and fined $50. The statute applicable to his case set the maximum penalty at a $500 fine and one year in jail.

Supreme Court decision[edit]

A plurality held that Illinois had not violated the Constitution. Writing for four of the justices, Rehnquist clarified the Court's holding in Argersinger v. Hamlin (1972) and argued that states could sentence a convicted criminal to imprisonment only if that person had been represented by counsel. Since Scott was not sentenced to imprisonment, even though the applicable statute allowed for it, the state was not obligated to provide counsel. Rehnquist called that line of reasoning "the central premise of Argersinger."

Justice Brennan dissented, drawing a distinction between "actual imprisonment" and "authorized imprisonment." He read Argersinger as saying that the right to jury trial existed when (1) a non-petty offense punishable by more than 6 months of jail time and (2) actual imprisonment was likely despite the authorized maximum penalty.

Brennan viewed authorized imprisonment as a more accurate standard because criminal statutes were written with this standard in mind and the social stigma attached to a crime took it into account.

Brennan also said the majority's reason for going with the actual imprisonment standard was budgetary. He said that this was an inappropriate standard when dealing with constitutional guarantees.

See also[edit]