May 15, 2017 is the fiftieth anniversary of the most important juvenile rights case in American history. It is important in family law, because it forms the base of providing children with their rights in legal proceedings.
In June of 1964, the Gila County Arizona sheriff removed fifteen-year-old Gerald Gault from his home and placed him the local detention center. The sheriff did so because a woman had complained that Gerald had made an obscene phone call to her home. Gerald’s parents were never informed of Gerald’s charges or detention.
When Gerald’s mom returned home that evening, Gerald was not there. She eventually learned that he was at the detention center but she was not allowed to take him home. The next day, Gerald was taken to superior court before Judge McGhee (acting as a juvenile court judge). Gerald’s parents were not notified of the hearing, and did not attend, nor did Gerald have any legal representation.
Gerald explained to the judge that his friend Lewis had made the call, not him. The judge told Gerald he would think about what Gerald said, and had Gerald remain at the detention center. A few days later, Gerald was released without any explanation, but told to appear for a delinquency hearing a few days later.
Although his accuser never testified against him, at the hearing the judge sentenced Gerald to six years in a state industrial school until he reached the age of 21. Had Gerald been an adult accused of the same crime, he would have been allowed bail at the time of his arrest. At trial, he would have been able to confront his accuser, and if convicted of the same offense, his maximum punishment would have two months in county jail and/or a fine of five to fifty dollars.
There was no juvenile appellate jurisdiction, so Gerald’s parents petitioned the Arizona Supreme Court for help. The case was sent back to Judge McGhee, where he ultimately upheld his own decision based on a vague two-year old report that Gerald may have stolen a baseball glove, and Gerald’s own statement that he had made silly, prank calls in the past.
Gerald’s parents again appealed to the Arizona Supreme Court, but the court held for Judge McGhee.
Gerald’s parents petitioned the United State Supreme Court, and the court found that Gerald had been denied his Sixth Amendment rights – a right to a fair trial. The court noted that Gerald did not have access to an attorney. He had not been notified of charges against him, was never informed of his right against self-incrimination, and had no opportunity to confront his accusers.
Side note, to this day, Gerald has never seen his accuser.