In 1964, a fifteen-year-old boy named Gerald Gault was arrested after he and a friend made a lewd phone call to their neighbor. Over the next few weeks, Gault was repeatedly interrogated by police, adjudicated before a judge twice in chambers, and was subsequently committed to an Arizona juvenile detention facility until his twenty-first birthday.
Three years later, on May 15, 1967, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in an 8-1 decision that the State of Arizona had failed to protect Gault’s due process rights under the Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution. In the majority opinion, what Chief Justice Earl Warren dubbed “the Magna Carta for juveniles,” Justice Abe Fortas wrote that states must protect juveniles’ right to due process, most notably access to legal counsel, during every phase of the judicial proceedings.
Fifty years on, many states continue to deny juveniles their right to counsel, either through legislation or in its implementation. According to Christina Gilbert, Senior Staff Attorney and Policy Counsel at the National Juvenile Defender Center, Vermont is doing a great job of protecting juveniles in several areas of due process: under state statutes, juveniles are guaranteed automatic access to an attorney regardless of financial status and are not expected to pay for their representation. Further, juveniles are specifically required to consult with an attorney before waiving that right, thus ensuring they understand the expertise they stand to lose when they turn down legal representation.
Where Vermont still needs to improve, however, is by ensuring that children have early access to legal representation, well before a case is heard, and retain access to counsel through sentencing, detention, and probation. Ms. Gilbert notes that according to interviews with Vermont attorneys, juveniles first meet their attorney in the courthouse. And that, she argues, isn’t nearly early enough. Juveniles need access to legal counsel during interrogation to protect their rights against self-incrimination and to level the vast power discrepancy between children and law enforcement.
If Vermont is to live up to the full promise of the Gault decision, and uphold the Constitutional rights of its children, the due process rights of all juveniles must be protected, during every phase of the legal process. In the words of Justice Fortas, “Due process of law is the primary and indispensable foundation of individual freedom,” especially, I might add, for Vermont’s children.