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The Sixth Amendment (Right to Counsel)
In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the State and district wherein the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defense.
Facts of the case: Clarence Earl Gideon was charged in Florida state court with a felony: having broken into and entered a poolroom with the intent to commit a misdemeanor offense. When he appeared in court without a lawyer, Gideon requested that the court appoint one for him. According to Florida state law, however, an attorney may only be appointed to an indigent defendant in capital cases, so the trial court did not appoint one. Gideon represented himself in trial. He was found guilty and sentenced to five years in prison. Gideon filed a habeas corpus petition in the Florida Supreme Court and argued that the trial court’s decision violated his constitutional right to be represented by counsel. The Florida Supreme Court denied habeas corpus relief.
Question: Does the Sixth Amendment’s right to counsel in criminal cases extend to felony defendants in state courts?
Conclusion: Yes. Justice Hugo L. Black delivered the opinion of the 9-0 majority. The Supreme Court held that the framers of the Constitution placed a high value on the right of the accused to have the means to put up a proper defense, and the state as well as federal courts must respect that right. The Court held that it was consistent with the Constitution to require state courts to appoint attorneys for defendants who could not afford to retain counsel on their own.
Justice William O. Douglas wrote a concurring opinion in which he argued that the Fourteenth Amendment does not apply a watered-down version of the Bill of Rights to the states. Since constitutional questions are always open for consideration by the Supreme Court, there is no need to assert a rule about the relationship between the Fourteenth Amendment and the Bill of Rights. In his separate opinion concurring in judgment, Justice Tom C. Clark wrote that the Constitution guarantees the right to counsel as a protection of due process, and there is no reason to apply that protection in certain cases but not others. Justice John M. Harlan wrote a separate concurring opinion in which he argued that the majority’s decision represented an extension of earlier precedent that established the existence of a serious criminal charge to be a “special circumstance” that requires the appointment of counsel. He also argued that the majority’s opinion recognized a right to be valid in state courts as well as federal ones; it did not apply a vast body of federal law to the states.