Sixth Amendment Court Cases
- Right to Counsel Clause

Each of these Sixth Amendment Court Cases is somehow significant to the way the Supreme Court has interpreted the Right to Counsel Clause in the Sixth Amendment to the US Constitution. Well, most are significant, some are just interesting! You can read about the history and meaning of the Sixth Amendment here.

Sixth Amendment Court Cases

Prior to 1932, the Right to Counsel Clause was generally understood to mean that people could hire an outside attorney to represent them in court if they wanted to do so and if they could afford to do so. The clause was not understood in the context of which it is understood today, that is, that the right means that people should have a court appointed attorney, paid for at the public's expense, if they cannot afford to hire one on their own. Starting with Powell vs. Alabama, in 1932, a series of Supreme Court decisions were made that changed the traditional understanding of this clause. The following cases will give you an understanding of how that process occurred.

Sixth Amendment Court Cases - Right to Counsel Clause cases -
Powell vs. Alabama In Powell vs. Alabama, 1932, several black youths were charged and convicted with raping two young white women. The case was appealed all the way to the Supreme Court where the Court threw out the convictions of the young men based on the fact that they had not been able to obtain the assistance of an attorney during their trial.

The case was handled hastily and because of the boys' young age, they were not competent enough to understand the trial procedures or represent themselves. They were also held in a state far away from their parents and were burdened with the inability to easily communicate with them. Supreme Court Justice George Sutherland delivered the Court's opinion and stated, in part:

Supreme Court Justice George Sutherland Source: The Collection of the Supreme Court of the United States (Artist: Nicholas R. Brewer)

"In a capital case, where the defendant is unable to employ counsel and is incapable of making his own defense adequately because of ignorance, feeble-mindedness, illiteracy or the like, it is the duty of the court, whether requested or not, to assign counsel for him as a necessary requisite of due process of law, and that duty is not discharged by an assignment at such a time and under such circumstances as to preclude the giving of effective aid in the preparation and trial of the case."

This case established that people had a right to counsel, whether they could afford it or not, in capital cases, that is, where the death penalty was allowed. It only applied to the Federal government, though, not the state governments. The right to have an appointed counsel in state cases, whether or not one could afford it, was not established until later.

Justice Sutherland also made a very famous statement about the necessity of counsel in criminal cases, even for intelligent and educated people. He said:

"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 crimes, 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 have 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."

Sixth Amendment Court Cases - Right to Counsel Clause cases -
Johnson vs. Zerbst In Johnson vs. Zerbst, 1938, two United States Marines had been convicted of possessing counterfeit money. They had received counsel during preliminary hearings two months before their trial, but at the trial itself, they did not have any attorneys representing them. They were notified of the charges, tried, convicted and sentenced all in one day and sent to a federal penitentiary two days later. They did not immediately appeal their case because they did not know they could and had no legal counsel to advise them.

The Supreme Court of the United States

The defendants appealed their case all the way to the Supreme Court, alleging that their Sixth Amendment right to counsel had been denied. The Court agreed with them and reversed their conviction. In this case, the Court established that defendants have the right to have an attorney appointed for them by the Court in all federal criminal cases, regardless of the defendant's understanding of his right to counsel.

The lower court had said that it was "unfortunate" that the men did not understand that they had a certain amount of time in which their appeal must be filed. They were not aware of the deadline because they had no attorney to inform them, nor did they ask for one. The lower court did not find that the trial court had any obligation to inform the men of their right to counsel and just assumed that the defendants were waiving their right to counsel because they did not have any present.

The Supreme Court thought this was completely contrary to the clear purpose of the Right to Counsel Clause, which is to protect people from being convicted because of their ignorance of legal procedures, and judged that the trial court must investigate whether or not the defendant understands his right to counsel and his right to waive that counsel if he desires. If he is waiving the right to counsel, the court must make clear record of it, including the reasons for doing so. If the court establishes that waiving the right to counsel would not be in the interest of the defendant, the court must appoint an attorney for him itself.

Sixth Amendment Court Cases - Right to Counsel Clause cases -
Gideon vs. Wainwright Gideon vs. Wainwright, 1963, was the case the Supreme Court used to apply the 6th Amendment's Right to Counsel Clause to the states. Before this time, from the inception of the 6th Amendment, the Amendment had applied only to the Federal government.

In Gideon, a man was convicted in Florida without having an attorney. The man had requested a court appointed attorney, but was denied because Florida law only required court appointed attorneys in death penalty cases. The case was appealed to the Supreme Court, which agreed with the defendant, that his 6th Amendment right to counsel had been denied him, violating the 14th Amendment's Due Process Clause.

The 14th Amendment's Due Process Clause required all states to give all citizens due process of law. The Amendment was added to the Constitution after the Civil War in order to protect former slaves from unequal treatment by Southern governments. The Supreme Court over the years began to interpret the Due Process Clause as meaning that all states must abide by the limitations placed upon the Federal government in the Bill of Rights.

Sixth Amendment Court Cases - Right to Counsel Clause cases -
Scott vs. Illinois Scott vs. Illinois, 1979, was a case involving a defendant who was convicted of shoplifting and fined $50 in a bench trial. The applicable Illinois law stated that the maximum penalty for the crime was a $500 fine or one year in jail, or both. The defendant appealed the case claiming that his 6th Amendment right to counsel had been violated because he did not have personal means to hire an attorney and the court had not appointed one for him.

The Court disagreed with the defendant. Before this case, the Court's rule had been that if imprisonment was even a possible punishment, the defendant was entitled to appointed counsel. In this case, the Court ruled that just the fact that imprisonment was a possible punishment alone did not require that an attorney be appointed. Instead, the Court said that imprisonment must be the actual sentence laid down in order to require the court to appoint an attorney for the defendant.

Read more about the history and meaning of the Right to Counsel Clause here.
Read more about the history and meaning of the 6th Amendment here.

Learn more about Sixth Amendment Court Cases relating to the following Sixth Amendment clauses:

Sixth Amendment Court Cases - Speedy Trial Clause
Sixth Amendment Court Cases - Public Trial Clause
Sixth Amendment Court Cases - Right to Trial by Jury Clause
Sixth Amendment Court Cases - Arraignment Clause
Sixth Amendment Court Cases - Confrontation Clause
Sixth Amendment Court Cases - Compulsory Process Clause

If you would like to read about the meanings of each amendment, go to the First Ten Amendments page here.

Amendments: Preamble to the Bill of Rights
Learn about the 1st Amendment here.
Learn about the 2nd Amendment here.
Learn about the 3rd Amendment here.
Learn about the 4th Amendment here.
Learn about the 5th Amendment here.
Learn about the 6th Amendment here.
Learn about the 7th Amendment here.
Learn about the 8th Amendment here.
Learn about the 9th Amendment here.
Learn about the 10th Amendment here.

Read the Bill of Rights here.

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