The federal government prosecuted Johnson (plaintiff) for counterfeiting. Trial in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of South Carolina commenced after Johnson told the judge he was willing to proceed without a lawyer. Johnson was convicted and sent to prison, where he was deprived of legal representation to help in filing an appeal; consequently, he missed the appeal deadline. Johnson then petitioned the district court to issue a writ of habeas corpus to Zerbst (defendant), the prison warden, on the grounds Johnson was tried without the assistance of counsel guaranteed him by the Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution. The district court did not determine whether Johnson waived his right to counsel. The court dismissed Johnson's petition, ruling that Johnson's failure to file a timely appeal, whether from ignorance or negligence, was insufficient to give the court habeas corpus jurisdiction to reopen Johnson's case. Johnson appealed to the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, which affirmed the district court's ruling. The United States Supreme Court granted certiorari to hear Johnson's appeal.