Fourteenth Amendment, Section 1:
All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.
Whatever may be the status of wealth distinctions per se as a suspect classification, 1 there is no doubt that when the classification affects some area characterized as or considered to be fundamental in nature in the structure of our polity – the ability of criminal defendants to obtain fair treatment throughout the system, the right to vote, to name two examples – then the classifying body bears a substantial burden in justifying what it has done. The cases begin with Griffin v. Illinois, 2 surely one of the most seminal cases in modern constitutional law. There, the state conditioned full direct appellate review – review to which all convicted defendants were entitled – on the furnishing of a bill of exceptions or report of the trial proceedings, in the preparation of which the stenographic transcript of the trial was usually essential. Only indigent defendants sentenced to death were furnished free transcripts; all other convicted defendants had to pay a fee to obtain them.
In criminal trials, Justice Black wrote in the plurality opinion,
a State can no more discriminate on account of poverty than on account of religion, race, or color. Although the state was not obligated to provide an appeal at all, when it does so it may not structure its system
in a way that discriminates against some convicted defendants on account of their poverty. The system’s fault was that it treated defendants with money differently from defendants without money.
There can be no equal justice where the kind of trial a man gets depends on the amount of money he has. 3
The principle of Griffin was extended in Douglas v. California, 4 in which the court held to be a denial of due process and equal protection a system whereby in the first appeal as of right from a conviction counsel was appointed to represent indigents only if the appellate court first examined the record and determined that counsel would be of advantage to the appellant.
There is lacking that equality demanded by the Fourteenth Amendment where the rich man, who appeals as of right, enjoys the benefit of counsel’s examination into the record, research of the law, and marshaling of arguments on his behalf, while the indigent, already burdened by a preliminary determination that his case is without merit, is forced to shift for himself. 5
From the beginning, Justice Harlan opposed reliance on the Equal Protection Clause at all, arguing that a due process analysis was the proper criterion to follow.
It is said that a State cannot discriminate between the ‘rich’ and the ‘poor’ in its system of criminal appeals. That statement of course commands support, but it hardly sheds light on the true character of the problem confronting us here. . . . All that Illinois has done is to fail to alleviate the consequences of differences in economic circumstances that exist wholly apart from any state action. A fee system neutral on its face was not a classification forbidden by the Equal Protection Clause.
[N]o economic burden attendant upon the exercise of a privilege bears equally upon all, and in other circumstances the resulting differentiation is not treated as an invidious classification by the State, even though discrimination against ‘indigents’ by name would be unconstitutional. 6 As he protested in Douglas:
The States, of course, are prohibited by the Equal Protection Clause from discriminating between ‘rich’ and ‘poor’ as such in the formulation and application of their laws. But it is a far different thing to suggest that this provision prevents the State from adopting a law of general applicability that may affect the poor more harshly than it does the rich, or, on the other hand, from making some effort to redress economic imbalances while not eliminating them entirely. 7
Due process furnished the standard, Justice Harlan felt, for determining whether fundamental fairness had been denied. Where an appeal was barred altogether by the imposition of a fee, the line might have been crossed to unfairness, but on the whole he did not see that a system that merely recognized differences between and among economic classes, which as in Douglas made an effort to ameliorate the fact of the differences by providing appellate scrutiny of cases of right, was a system that denied due process. 8
The Court has reiterated that both due process and equal protection concerns are implicated by restrictions on indigents’ exercise of the right of appeal.
In cases like Griffin and Douglas, due process concerns were involved because the States involved had set up a system of appeals as of right but had refused to offer each defendant a fair opportunity to obtain an adjudication on the merits of his appeal. Equal protection concerns were involved because the State treated a class of defendants – indigent ones – differently for purposes of offering them a meaningful appeal. 9