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‘A true turning point’: Creighton observes 50th anniversary of In re Gault, U.S. Supreme Court case that revolutionized juvenile justice

He was a teenager standing in front of a judge passing a six-year sentence on him for a crime it could not even be proved he committed.

He had no lawyer. There was no trial, no complaining witness, no evidence. There was no access to any record of the proceedings, no appeal. When his mother asked the judge if she could kiss her son goodbye as he was being escorted from the courtroom, from the bench, the judge insulted her.

The matter of 15-year-old Gerry Gault did not transpire in a totalitarian kangaroo court or in a star chamber but right here, in the United States of America, and it forever changed our ideas about juveniles in relation to the law and the right to due process for all American citizens.

Monday, May 15, Creighton University held a 50th anniversary observance of In re Gault, the U.S. Supreme Court case that began the study and implementation of juvenile justice in American courts, ruling that a child does not forfeit his or her constitutional rights simply due to youth. The conference, titled “Fulfilling the Legacy of Gault: Defending Children’s Rights,” was marked with a luncheon, panel discussion, remarks from juvenile court judges, and a training session for the nearly 50 legal professionals who came to commemorate the occasion.

Gault was a true turning point,” said Catherine M. Brooks, JD, professor in the Creighton School of Law. “In many ways, it told us just how important the Supreme Court of the United States is when it comes to a matter of not just a juvenile’s legal rights, but our recognition of human rights.”

The Gault case stemmed from an obscene phone call allegedly originating from the Gault home in Gila County, Arizona, in 1964. Acting on the suspicions of the phone call’s victim, a neighbor of the Gaults, the sheriff’s deputies arrested Gerry Gault and lodged him in the county’s youth detention facility.

His parents were not notified of his arrest nor of his confinement. His mother found him in the facility later that night and, in the morning, attended her son’s preliminary hearing where Gerry Gault gave his side of the story and a judge said he’d take it under advisement but kept the youth in custody for several more days without family contact or access to legal representation.

Ultimately, the judge ruled Gault a delinquent and ordered him to serve a term in the state’s industrial school until he was 21. For an adult found guilty of the same offense, a misdemeanor, the phone call would have carried a maximum punishment of two months in prison and a $50 fine.

But as a juvenile, Gault was not given access to counsel, was not allowed to face his accuser at a trial, and was not allowed to present or challenge evidence. And as Arizona had no statutes allowing juvenile appeals, the case appeared to be closed once Gerry was imprisoned.

A quartet of women, starting with Gault’s mother, Marjorie Gault, and Amelia Lewis, the lawyer she hired, set into motion a series of actions ending with the case elevated to the U.S. Supreme Court. Lorna Lockwood, an associate justice for the Arizona court, worked with Lewis to attain a habeas corpus hearing.

Despite Lewis’ courtroom examination of the juvenile court judge that made it clear he had used no legal reasoning or law to sentence Gerry, both the lower court and the Arizona Supreme Court ruled Gerry Gault had received all the legal process he was due under Arizona’s juvenile court law. But Lewis had built a substantial enough case that she applied to the American Civil Liberties Union to consider the matter. At the ACLU in New York, Gertrude Mainzer was assigned the case and found significant constitutional issues with which she could petition the U.S. Supreme Court.

The case eventually landed on the Supreme Court’s docket in December 1966 and was decided May 15, 1967, with Associate Justice Abe Fortas writing for the 8-1 majority, “The condition of being a boy does not justify a kangaroo court.”

“Sometimes — maybe often — teenage boys don’t use their best judgment,” said Creighton School of Law Dean Paul E. McGreal. “In this case, it was found the Arizona court didn’t use its best judgment either. But each of these women played a strategic role in the recognition of juvenile justice in this country. They rightfully challenged the status quo and they remind us all that justice is a daily pursuit.”

As part of Creighton’s observances, the Hon. Lawrence D. Gendler, JD’78, judge of the Sarpy County Juvenile Court, led a panel discussion on juvenile justice services with Sarah Mitchell and Cassy Blakely, both of whom work in the realm of juvenile justice advocacy with organizations like the Nebraska Children and Family Foundation, the Nebraska Coalition for Juvenile Justice, and Project Everlast.

Nebraska State Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks of Lincoln (unrelated to Prof. Brooks) was honored with the first Fulfilling the Legacy of Gault Award for her longtime advocacy and policymaking on juvenile justice issues as an attorney and on the floor of the Nebraska Legislature. In accepting the accolade, Sen. Pansing Brooks pointed out the echoes of Gault remain. She has spent the past legislative session championing a bill that would forestall juvenile offenders from declining counsel, but some courts in smaller counties have been resistant to the idea, saying there is little need for such a measure and even fewer resources.

The Hon. Vernon C.R. Daniels, a judge of the Douglas County Juvenile Court and an adjunct faculty member with the School of Law, delivered closing remarks centered on the crucial role legal professionals play in their interactions with juveniles charged with status offenses and delinquency.

“It is indeed a good and worthy practice of the law,” Daniels said of juvenile justice. “You may be the first or one of many attorneys your client will have. I may be the first or one of many judges your client will encounter. When Gerry Gault and his family met the Supreme Court that day 50 years ago, the Supreme Court and the practice of law in the juvenile arena were never the same again. The question for us now is, ‘How will all of us measure up?’”

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