Counsel, right to Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The opportunity for defendants in federal criminal proceedings to be represented by lawyers, as guaranteed by the Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Although the Sixth AmendmentSixth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution appeared to contain the right to legal counsel, the exact meaning of that provision was unclear until interpreted by Congress and the Supreme Court. In 1790, while the Sixth Amendment was still being ratified, Congress passed the Federal Crimes Act, which required that defendants in federal capital cases be provided with legal representation. The Court extended this same protection to all federal criminal cases, regardless of whether they involved the death penalty, in Johnson v. Zerbst[case]Johnson v. Zerbst[Johnson v. Zerbst] (1938).Defendants’ rightsDefendants’ rights

Special Circumstances Doctrine

Although some states required the appointment of lawyers even before the Sixth Amendment was ratified, there was no national code of due process that obligated the states to provide legal help for people accused of crimes. It was not until 1932 that the Court imposed even a limited requirement on state courts to provide legal counsel, and as late as 1963, some states still refused to pay for lawyers for poor defendants.

In Powell v. Alabama[case]Powell v. Alabama[Powell v. Alabama] (1932), the first Scottsboro case, the Court, by a 7-2 majority, overturned Alabama’s convictions of nine African American youths for raping two white women. The young men had been given a pro forma trial and sentenced to death. Although they had received courtappointed lawyers, the attorneys provided a weak defense. The trial judge behaved in an overtly biased fashion toward the defendants, and evidence that might have cast doubt on Alabama’s case was never presented by the young men’s lawyers. In his majority opinion, Justice George Sutherland did not extend the right to counsel to all state criminal cases, but he did establish the “special circumstances” doctrine. The Court ruled that in state capital cases where there were special circumstances, such as the illiteracy of the defendant, state trial judges were obligated to appoint competent lawyers to represent the accused. For more than thirty years, the special circumstances doctrine would be the law of the land, requiring state courts to appoint legal counsel in only the most obvious and serious situations of defendant need.

A Reconsideration

Although the Court had the opportunity to apply the right to counsel to all state criminal cases in Betts v. Brady[case]Betts v. Brady[Betts v. Brady](1942), it declined to do so, sticking to the case-by-case scheme it had prescribed in the Powell case. It was not until the 1963 case of Gideon v. Wainwright[case]Gideon v. Wainwright[Gideon v. Wainwright] that the Court finally retired the special circumstances doctrine. Clarence Gideon was a drifter with a history of committing petty crimes. He was accused of breaking into a pool hall and stealing some money and liquor. Although Gideon asked the trial judge to appoint him a lawyer, the judge, relying on Betts, refused to do so. After a failed attempt at defending himself, Gideon was sentenced to a long term in prison. Gideon appealed his conviction on Sixth and Fourteenth Amendment grounds to the Supreme Court.

The Court had been looking for just the right case to overrule what most of them considered a flawed decision in Betts v. Brady. To reverse Betts, the Court needed a case in which an intelligent person, denied a lawyer, had been unable to successfully defend himself. Because Gideon was an intelligent man, there could be no question that the trial judge might have improperly denied him special circumstances status. Likewise, because Gideon was white, there could be no question of possible racial discrimination to muddy the waters. The charges against Gideon were not complicated. Gideon was an intelligent man, with a sympathetic, even helpful trial judge, who failed miserably to defend himself against noncomplex charges. This made Gideon the perfect case to overrule the special circumstances doctrine, and on March 18, 1963, a unanimous Supreme Court, speaking through Justice Hugo L. Black, applied the right to counsel to all state criminal proceedings.

In Argersinger v. Hamlin[case]Argersinger v. Hamlin[Argersinger v. Hamlin] (1972) and Scott v. Illinois[case]Scott v. Illinois[Scott v. Illinois] (1979), the Court extended the right to counsel to misdemeanor trials that resulted in jail sentences but not to those that resulted in fines or lesser punishment.

The Pretrial Period

Gideon left many important questions unanswered, including at what point in the criminal investigation a suspect who requested a lawyer had to be provided with one. In Escobedo v. Illinois[case]Escobedo v. Illinois[Escobedo v. Illinois] (1964), the Court ruled that a suspect asking for counsel during a police interrogation had to be granted representation.

In Miranda v. Arizona[case]Miranda v. Arizona[Miranda v. Arizona] (1966), the Court went a step further, requiring the police to advise suspects of their right to a lawyer even if they did not ask to speak with an attorney. According to the Court, a person suspected of committing a crime should be provided with a lawyer at the moment that individual ceases being one of several possible suspects and becomes the principal focus of the criminal investigation. The decisions in these two cases showed that, in the Court’s collective mind, the Sixth Amendment right to counsel was firmly connected to the Fifth Amendment’s protection from compulsory self-incrimination.

Further Reading
  • Garcia, Alfredo. The Sixth Amendment in Modern American Jurisprudence. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 1992.
  • Horne, Gerald. “Powell v. Alabama”: The Scottsboro Boys and American Justice. New York: Franklin Watts, 1997.
  • Lewis, Anthony. Gideon’s Trumpet. 1964. New York: Vintage, 1989.
  • Stephen, John, and Earl Sweeney. Officer’s Interrogation Handbook. New York: LexisNexis, 2004.
  • Taylor, John B. Right to Counsel and Privilege Against Self-Incrimination: Rights and Liberties Under the Law. Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-Clio, 2004.
  • Tomkovicz, James J. The Right to the Assistance of Counsel: A Reference Guide to the United States Constitution. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2002.
  • Wice, Paul B. “Miranda v. Arizona”: “You Have the Right to Remain Silent. . . .” New York: Franklin Watts, 1996.

Argersinger v. Hamlin

Betts v. Brady

Escobedo v. Illinois

Gideon v. Wainwright

Indigent criminal defendants

Johnson v. Zerbst

Miranda rights

Miranda v. Arizona

Powell v. Alabama

Self-incrimination, immunity against

Sixth Amendment

Categories: History