Quantum Leap & Constitutional Law

Quantum Leap was time travel classic based on the premise the hero, Dr. Sam Beckett, could travel within his own lifetime by “leaping” into a specific individual in the past. This “string theory” of time travel allowed for five seasons setting right what once went wrong across the 1950s to 1980s.

In the episode So Help Me God, Sam was a southern lawyer defending an African American woman accused of murdering the son of the most powerful man in town. And yes, Sam exclusively wore bow ties.

The story took place beginning on July 29, 1957 and the “murder” on June 15, 1957 in a fictional parish of Louisiana.

The Defendant who did not want to testify on her own behalf, which included not challenging the false confession she signed. As the story progressed, it was revealed that the Defendant was a victim of rape and physical abuse at the hands of the “victim.” The story’s bombshell was the victim’s mother was the one who actually killed the victim while he was beating the Defendant. The mother had also given the Defendant money before the son attacked her, so the girl could escape to a better life. Out of loyalty, the Defendant was not willing to testify to avoid saying that the victim’s mother had killed her own son.

The episode touched on multiple legal issues for the Defendant:

Arrested without being informed of right to counsel
Confession without assistance of counsel (and under duress)
State refusal to produce confession, police file, and medical examination report
Witnesses refusing to testify
Jury selection of all white jurors for an African American defendant

The problem with several of these issues was the story took place in 1957, while Constitutional rights were in “flux.” The right to counsel under the 5th and 6th Amendments was still developing case law (and continue to have cases that have reached the US Supreme Court even in the last decade).

A Review of United State Supreme Court Case Law

The string theory of time travel was awesome for Quantum Leap, but only tangles up Supreme Court jurisprudence. Below is a timeline of  pivotal cases on the right to counsel.

Right to Counsel in Capital Cases

The 1932 Supreme Court case Powell v Alabama is one of the early cases law students learn about in Criminal Procedure. The United States has never not believed in the right to counsel (we wrote it into the 6th Amendment for a reason), but there were issues in states publicly providing attorneys to the poor charged with a crime.

Powell v Alabama held that a state violated a defendant’s 14th Amendment due process rights by denying a defendant access to effective assistance of counsel in capital cases. Powell v. Ala., 287 U.S. 45 (U.S. 1932).

Powell involved defendants who were initially represented at their arraignment, but did not have an attorney until the trial.  The defendants were convicted and sentenced to death.

The Supreme Court held the defendants did not have the aid of counsel between the time of their arraignment until the trial. The Court further looked at the defendants education, youthful age and public hostility to them. As Justice Sutherland stated for the Court:

It never has been doubted by this court, or any other so far as we know, that notice and hearing are preliminary steps essential to the passing of an enforceable judgment, and that they, together with a legally competent tribunal having jurisdiction of the case, constitute basic elements of the constitutional requirement of due process of law. The words of Webster, so often quoted, that by “the law of the land” is intended “a law which hears before it condemns,” have been repeated in varying forms of expression in a multitude of decisions. In Holden v. Hardy, 169 U.S. 366, 389, the necessity of due notice and an opportunity of being heard is described as among the “immutable principles of justice which inhere in the very idea of free government which no member of the Union may disregard.”

What, then, does a hearing include? Historically and in practice, in our own country at least, it has always included the right to the aid of counsel when desired and provided by the party asserting the right. The right to be heard would be, in many cases, of little avail if it did not comprehend the right to be heard by counsel. Even the intelligent and educated layman has small and sometimes no skill in the science of law. If charged with crime, he is incapable, generally, of determining for himself whether the indictment is good or bad. He is unfamiliar with the rules of evidence. Left without the aid of counsel he may be put on trial without a proper charge, and convicted upon incompetent evidence, or evidence irrelevant to the issue or otherwise inadmissible. He lacks both the skill and knowledge adequately to prepare his defense, even though he had a perfect one. He requires the guiding hand of counsel at every step in the proceedings against him. Without it, though he be not guilty, he faces the danger of conviction because he does not know how to establish his innocence. If that be true of men of intelligence, how much more true is it of the ignorant and illiterate, or those of feeble intellect. If in any case, civil or criminal, a state or federal court were arbitrarily to refuse to hear a party by counsel, employed by and appearing for him, it reasonably may not be doubted that such a refusal would be a denial of a hearing, and, therefore, of due process in the constitutional sense.

Powell v. Ala., 287 U.S. 45, 68-69 (U.S. 1932).

Let’s leap forward to Betts v. Brady, 316 U.S. 455 (U.S. 1942).

No Right to Appointed-State Counsel in Non-Capital Cases

Betts held there was no right to state-appointed counsel in every case a defendant was charged with a crime and unable to retain an attorney. Betts v. Brady, 316 U.S. 455 (U.S. 1942).

The Betts decision has long been in the Supreme Court graveyard. It literally offends conservative and liberal attorneys alike today, because it highlights anyone can be prosecuted without any hope of a defense against the state who cannot afford a lawyer themselves (or a willingness to bankrupt themselves or spend their entire life savings in mounting a defense).

However, Betts is remembered for Justice Black’s powerful dissent:

A practice cannot be reconciled with “common and fundamental ideas of fairness and right,” which subjects innocent men to increased dangers of conviction merely because of their poverty. Whether a man is innocent cannot be determined from a trial in which, as here, denial of counsel has made it impossible to conclude, with any satisfactory degree of certainty, that the defendant’s case was adequately presented. No one questions that due process requires a hearing before conviction and sentence for the serious crime of robbery. As the Supreme Court of Wisconsin said, in 1859, “. . . would it not be a little like mockery to secure to a pauper these solemn constitutional guaranties for a fair and full trial of the matters with which he was charged, and yet say to him when on trial, that he must employ his own counsel, who could alone render these guaranties of any real permanent value to him. . . . Why this great solicitude to secure him a fair trial if he cannot have the benefit of counsel?” Carpenter v. Dane County, 9 Wis. 274, 276-277.


Denial to the poor of the request for counsel in proceedings based on charges of serious crime has long been regarded as shocking to the “universal sense of justice” throughout this country. In 1854, for example, the Supreme Court of Indiana said: “It is not to be thought of, in a civilized community, for a moment, that any citizen put in jeopardy of life or liberty, should be debarred of counsel because he was too poor to employ such aid. No Court could be respected, or respect itself, to sit and hear  such a trial. The defence of the poor, in such cases, is a duty resting somewhere, which will be at once conceded as essential to the accused, to the Court, and to the public.” Webb v. Baird, 6 Ind. 13, 18. And most of the other States have shown their agreement by constitutional provisions, statutes, or established practice judicially approved, which assure that no man shall be deprived of counsel merely because of his poverty. Any other practice seems to me to defeat the promise of our democratic society to provide equal justice under the law.

Betts v. Brady, 316 U.S. 455, 476 (U.S. 1942)

Why is Justice Black’s dissent relevant? Because Justice Black wrote the majority opinion in Gideon v Wainwright.

Overturning Betts & The Right to Counsel

Gideon v Wainwright is a wonderful example of how a lifetime appointment on the Supreme Court can enable a Justice to put right what once went wrong.

Gideon was found guilty by a judge (there was no jury) and sentenced to eight years in prison. Gideon had demanded a lawyer “because the Supreme Court said he was entitled to one” and was denied one by the state, because he was not charged with a capital offense. Gideon v. Wainwright, 372 U.S. 335 (U.S. 1963).

Justice Black (probably with a great sense of justice and a smile after 21 years) explained the Betts decision was a departure from established precedents on the right to counsel and was overturned. Moreover, by overturning Betts, the Court “restore[d] constitutional principles established to achieve a fair system of justice.”  Justice Black drove home the point with the following:

Not only these precedents but also reason and reflection require us to recognize that in our adversary system of criminal justice, any person haled into court, who is too poor to hire a lawyer, cannot be assured a fair trial unless counsel is provided for him. This seems to us to be an obvious truth. Governments, both state and federal, quite properly spend vast sums of money to establish machinery to try defendants accused of crime. Lawyers to prosecute are everywhere deemed essential to protect the public’s interest in an orderly society. Similarly, there are few defendants charged with crime, few indeed, who fail to hire the best lawyers they can get to prepare and present their defenses. That government hires lawyers to prosecute and defendants who have the money hire lawyers to defend are the strongest indications of the widespread belief that lawyers in criminal courts are necessities, not luxuries. The right of one charged with crime to counsel may not be deemed fundamental and essential to fair trials in some countries, but it is in ours. From the very beginning, our state and national constitutions and laws have laid great emphasis on procedural and substantive safeguards designed to assure fair trials before impartial tribunals in which every defendant stands equal before the law. This noble ideal cannot be realized if the poor man charged with crime has to face his accusers without a lawyer to assist him.

Gideon v. Wainwright, 372 U.S. 335, 344 (U.S. 1963) (emphasis added).

Right to Counsel Under the 5th & 6th Amendments

The rights defined and explained in Miranda v Arizona are the most relevant to the Quantum Leap story, because there was no question under the law in 1957 that the fictional Defendant was entitled to counsel under Powell, because the case against her was murder (a capital offense). However, the case law review is helpful in understanding how the Supreme Court would issue the Miranda opinion in 1966.

Miranda is an extremely large opinion detailing the 5th Amendment right against self-incrimination and right to counsel under the 6th Amendment.

In one relevant passage the Court held:

Accordingly we hold that an individual held for interrogation must be clearly informed that he has the right to consult with a lawyer and to have the lawyer with him during interrogation under the system for protecting the privilege we delineate today. As with the warnings of the right to remain silent and that anything stated can be used in evidence against him, this warning is an absolute prerequisite to interrogation. No amount of  circumstantial evidence that the person may have been aware of this right will suffice to stand in its stead. Only through such a warning is there ascertainable assurance that the accused was aware of this right.

Miranda v. Ariz., 384 U.S. 436, 471-472 (U.S. 1966).

Our fictional Defendant was not informed of those rights and was coerced into signing a confession she herself could not even read (violating both her 5th and 6th Amendment rights). As such, the confession would have been suppressed under the Miranda decision….if it was 1966 and not 1957.

However, there was case law from the 1950s that would have thrown out the confession based on coercion. However, without the Defendant testifying about the confession, Sam would have had to deliver impressive cross-examinations on the police in a town fueled on racism and bent on convicting the fictional Defendant. Not an easy task for a seasoned litigator, let alone a time traveler without a law degree.

The Leap Home

Quantum Leap was a highly endearing series, because it often showed the best parts of America’s past standing up to the ugliest. Moreover, it showed one person could make a positive difference in helping others (who in turn could help others, as seen in the final episode). While So Help Me God was not the perfect episode on trial advocacy, it highlighted excellent issues in Constitutional Law.