Judge: ‘Prank Call that Changed America’ turns 50

David Hejmanowski - Contributing Columnist

“The powers of the Star Chamber were a trifle in comparison with those of our juvenile courts.”

— Dean Pound, 1937

“Under our Constitution, the condition of being a boy does not justify a kangaroo court.”

— Justice Abe Fortas, ‘In re Gault,’ 1967

It was mere chance that brought Gerald to Arizona. In 1960, his parents had packed he and his brother into the family car and headed west hoping to find a better life in California. They never made it there. The car broke down in Arizona and, having no money to fix it, they settled in the Grand Canyon State.

Four years later, fifteen-year-old Gerald greeted the start of summer of vacation. On a beautiful June day, he and a friend began to look for fun. Fun led them back to Gerald’s house and to the telephone. Gerald dialed the woman who lived next door and then handed the phone to his friend who made remarks to the neighbor that the United States Supreme Court would later classify as, “of the irritatingly offensive, adolescent, sex variety.” The neighbor, who did not find the call humorous at all, phoned the police and led them to Gerald.

When his mother returned home from work, she was surprised to find that Gerald was not there and sent his brother out to find him. Gerald was not out in the neighborhood though; he was in the juvenile detention center. He had been arrested without charge and held without hearing. The following day he and his mother appeared before the local juvenile judge, not in a courtroom, but in the judge’s office.

There, they were told only that he was charged with being delinquent and that it related to the phone call. They were not told that he could have an attorney, were not afforded an opportunity to talk to or ask questions of the neighbor, and were not given the opportunity to have the hearing recorded. Gerald was not told that he did not have to answer questions, but was then directly asked by the judge if he had made the call and he admitted that he did.

Based on that statement alone, the judge found that Gerald was delinquent. Citing his past history in juvenile court (the total sum of which was his being with another juvenile who committed a theft offense), the court, again without holding a formal hearing or recording its proceedings, ordered that he be sent to the State Industrial School, a secure, locked, prison-like facility, where he was to be held until the age of 21. Gerald’s parents were shocked, but were informed that in Arizona, juveniles had no right to appeal.

If Gerald had been an adult, he would have faced no more than a $50 fine and two months in jail. The disparate penalties were possible because Arizona, like most states at that time, considered juvenile proceedings to be purely civil — a situation in which the court was essentially acting in the role of a parent. And since that was the case, Constitutional protections of due process did not have to be given to him. Gerald’s parents found an attorney willing to represent them and eventually his case arrived at the United States Supreme Court.

By a vote of 8-1, the Supreme Court said that this “invidious discrimination” had to end. Concluding that, “neither the Fourteenth Amendment nor the Bill of Rights is for adults alone,” the Court found that the juvenile system in Arizona and dozens of other states was unconstitutional and that juveniles had to be provided with nearly all of the Constitutional protections that are provided to adults. This was a massive and total overhaul of juvenile justice in America.

As a result of “In re Gault,” juveniles now have the right to counsel, the right to a trial, the right to call and cross examine witnesses, the right to have the proceedings against them recorded and the right to appeal. Fifty years after it was decided, “In re Gault” remains the single most important case in the area of juvenile justice. It guides nearly every discussion about the rights of juveniles. And it may never have been if not for a prank phone call made by a bored fifteen year old.

You can read more about the case at gaultat50.org. Or, if you’re a diehard Supreme Court buff, you can listen to a complete recording of the Dec. 16, 1966 argument before the Supreme Court at www.oyez.org.


David Hejmanowski

Contributing Columnist

David Hejmanowski is Judge of the Probate/Juvenile Division of the Delaware County Delaware County Court of Common Pleas.

David Hejmanowski is Judge of the Probate/Juvenile Division of the Delaware County Delaware County Court of Common Pleas.