Neither in the Congress which proposed what became the Sixth Amendment guarantee that the accused is to have the assistance of counsel nor in the state ratifying conventions is there any indication of the understanding associated with the language employed. The development of the common-law principle in England had denied to anyone charged with a felony the right to retain counsel, while the right was afforded in misdemeanor cases, a rule ameliorated in practice, however, by the judicial practice of allowing counsel to argue points of law and then generously interpreting the limits of "legal questions." The colonial and early state practice in this country was varied, ranging from the existent English practice to appointment of counsel in a few States where needed counsel could not be retained.201 Contemporaneously with the proposal and ratification of the Sixth Amendment, Congress enacted two statutory provisions which seemed to indicate an understanding that the guarantee was limited to assuring that a person wishing and able to afford counsel would not be denied that right.202 It was not until the 1930s that the Supreme Court began expanding the clause to its present scope.
201 W. BEANEY, THE RIGHT TO COUNSEL IN AMERICAN COURTS 8-26 (1955).
202 Section 35 of the Judiciary Act of 1789, ch. 20, 1 Stat. 73, provided that in federal courts parties could manage and plead their own causes personally or by the assistance of counsel as provided by the rules of court. The Act of April 30, 1790, ch. 9, 1 Stat. 118, provided: "Every person who is indicted of treason or other capital crime, shall be allowed to make his full defense by counsel learned in the law; and the court before which he is tried, or some judge thereof, shall immediately, upon his request, assign to him such counsel not exceeding two, as he may desire, and they shall have free access to him at all reasonable hours." It was apparently the practice almost invariably to appoint counsel for indigent defendants charged with noncapital crimes, although it may be assumed that the practice fell short often of what is now constitutionally required. W. BEANEY, THE RIGHT TO COUNSEL IN AMERICAN COURTS 29-30 (1955).
Powell v. Alabama.—The expansion began in Powell v. Alabama,203 in which the Court set aside the convictions of eight black youths sentenced to death in a hastily carried-out trial without benefit of counsel. Due process, Justice Sutherland said for the Court, always requires the observance of certain fundamental personal rights associated with a hearing, and "the right to the aid of counsel is of this fundamental character." This observation was about the right to retain counsel of one's choice and at one's expense, and included an eloquent statement of the necessity of counsel. "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."204
203 287 U.S. 45 (1932).
The failure to afford the defendants an opportunity to retain counsel violated due process, but the Court acknowledged that as indigents the youths could not have retained counsel. Therefore, the Court concluded, under the circumstances— "the ignorance and illiteracy of the defendants, their youth, the circumstances of public hostility, the imprisonment and the close surveillance of the defendants by the military forces, the fact that their friends and families were all in other states and communication with them necessarily difficult, and above all that they stood in deadly peril of their lives"— "the necessity of counsel was so vital and imperative that the failure of the trial court to make an effective appointment of counsel was likewise a denial of due process within the meaning of the Fourteenth Amendment." The holding was narrow. "[I]n a capital case, where the defendant is unable to employ counsel, and is incapable adequately of making his own defense 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 …"205
Johnson v. Zerbst.—Next step in the expansion came in Johnson v. Zerbst,206 in which the Court announced an absolute rule requiring appointment of counsel for federal criminal defendants who could not afford to retain a lawyer. The right to assistance of counsel, Justice Black wrote for the Court, "is necessary to insure fundamental human rights of life and liberty." Without stopping to distinguish between the right to retain counsel and the right to have counsel provided if the defendant cannot afford to hire one, the Justice quoted Justice Sutherland's invocation of the necessity of legal counsel for even the intelligent and educated layman and said: "The Sixth Amendment withholds from federal courts, in all criminal proceedings, the power and authority to deprive an accused of his life or liberty unless he has or waives the assistance of counsel."207 Any waiver, the Court ruled, must be by the intelligent choice of the defendant, will not be presumed from a silent record, and must be determined by the trial court before proceeding in the absence of counsel.208
204 287 U.S. at 68-69.
205 287 U.S. at 71.
206 304 U.S. 458 (1938).
207 304 U.S. at 462, 463.
208 304 U.S. at 464-65. The standards for a valid waiver were tightened in Walker v. Johnston, 312 U.S. 275 (1941), setting aside a guilty plea made without assistance of counsel, by a ruling requiring that a defendant appearing in court be advised of his right to counsel and asked whether or not he wished to waive the right. See also Von Moltke v. Gillies, 332 U.S. 708 (1948); Carnley v. Cochran, 369 U.S. 506 (1962). A waiver must be knowing, voluntary, and intelligent, but need not be based on a full and complete understanding of all of the consequences. Iowa v. Tovar, 541 U.S. 77 (2004) (holding that warnings by trial judge detailing risks of waiving right to counsel are not constitutionally required before accepting guilty plea from uncounseled defendant).
Betts v. Brady and Progeny.—An effort to obtain the same rule in the state courts in all criminal proceedings was rebuffed in Betts v. Brady.209 Justice Roberts for the Court observed that the Sixth Amendment would compel the result only in federal courts but that in state courts the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment "formulates a concept less rigid and more fluid" than those guarantees embodied in the Bill of Rights, although a state denial of a right protected in one of the first eight Amendments might "in certain circumstances" be a violation of due process. The question was rather "whether the constraint laid by the Amendment upon the national courts expresses a rule so fundamental and essential to a fair trial, and so, to due process of law, that it is made obligatory upon the States by the Fourteenth Amendment."210 Examining the common-law rules, the English practice, and the state constitutions, laws and practices, the Court concluded that it was the "considered judgment of the people, their representatives and their courts that appointment of counsel is not a fundamental right essential to a fair trial." Want of counsel in a particular case might result in a conviction lacking in fundamental fairness and so necessitate the interposition of constitutional restriction upon state practice, but this was not the general rule.211 Justice Black in dissent argued that the Fourteenth Amendment made the Sixth applicable to the States and required the appointment of counsel, but that even on the Court's terms counsel was a fundamental right and appointment was required by due process.212
Over time the Court abandoned the "special circumstances" language of Powell v. Alabama213 when capital cases were involved and finally in Hamilton v. Alabama,214 held that in a capital case a defendant need make no showing of particularized need or of prejudice resulting from absence of counsel; henceforth, assistance of counsel was a constitutional requisite in capital cases. In non-capital cases, developments were such that Justice Harlan could assert that "the 'special circumstances' rule has continued to exist in form while its substance has been substantially and steadily eroded."215 The rule was designed to afford some certainty in the determination of when failure to appoint counsel would result in a trial lacking in "fundamental fairness." Generally, the Court developed three categories of prejudicial factors, often overlapping in individual cases, which required the furnishing of assistance of counsel. There were (1) the personal characteristics of the defendant which made it unlikely he could obtain an adequate defense of his own,216 (2) the technical complexity of the charges or of possible defenses to the charges,217 and (3) events occurring at trial that raised problems of prejudice.218 The last characteristic especially had been utilized by the Court to set aside convictions occurring in the absence of counsel,219 and the last case rejecting a claim of denial of assistance of counsel had been decided in 1950.220
209 316 U.S. 455 (1942).
210 316 U.S. at 461-62, 465.
211 316 U.S. at 471, 473.
212 316 U.S. at 474 (joined by Justices Douglas and Murphy).
213 287 U.S. 45, 71 (1932).
214 368 U.S. 52 (1961). Earlier cases employing the "special circumstances" language were Williams v. Kaiser, 323 U.S. 471 (1945); Tompkins v. Missouri, 323 U.S. 485 (1945); Hawk v. Olson, 326 U.S. 271 (1945); De Meerleer v. Michigan, 329 U.S. 663 (1947); Marino v. Ragen, 332 U.S. 561 (1947); Haley v. Ohio, 332 U.S. 596 (1948). Dicta appeared in several cases thereafter suggesting an absolute right to counsel in capital cases. Bute v. Illinois, 333 U.S. 640, 674 (1948); Uveges v. Pennsylvania, 335 U.S. 437, 441 (1948). A state court decision finding a waiver of the right in a capital case was upheld in Carter v. Illinois, 329 U.S. 173 (1946).
215 Gideon v. Wainwright, 372 U.S. 335, 350 (1963).
216 Youth and immaturity (Moore v. Michigan, 355 U.S. 155 (1957); Pennsylvania ex rel. Herman v. Claudy, 350 U.S. 116 (1956); Uveges v. Pennsylvania, 335 U.S. 437 (1948); Wade v. Mayo, 334 U.S. 672 (1948); Marino v. Ragen, 332 U.S. 561 (1947); De Meerleer v. Michigan, 329 U.S. 663 (1947)), inexperience (Moore v. Michigan, supra (limited education), Uveges v. Pennsylvania, supra), and insanity or mental abnormality (Massey v. Moore, 348 U.S. 105 (1954); Palmer v. Ashe, 342 U.S. 134 (1951)), were commonly-cited characteristics of the defendant demonstrating the necessity for assistance of counsel.
217 Technicality of the crime charged (Moore v. Michigan, 355 U.S. 155 (1957); Pennsylvania ex rel. Herman v. Claudy, 350 U.S. 116 (1956); Williams v. Kaiser, 323 U.S. 471 (1945)), or the technicality of a possible defense (Rice v. Olson, 324 U.S. 786 (1945); McNeal v. Culver, 365 U.S. 109 (1961)), were commonly cited.
218 The deliberate or careless overreaching by the court or the prosecutor (Gibbs v. Burke, 337 U.S. 772 (1949); Townsend v. Burke, 334 U.S. 736 (1948); Palmer v. Ashe, 342 U.S. 134 (1951); White v. Ragen, 324 U.S. 760 (1945)), prejudicial developments during the trial (Cash v. Culver, 358 U.S. 633 (1959); Gibbs v. Burke, supra), and questionable proceedings at sentencing (Townsend v. Burke, supra), were commonly cited.
219 Hudson v. North Carolina, 363 U.S. 697 (1960), held that an unrepresented defendant had been prejudiced when his co-defendant's counsel plead his client guilty in the presence of the jury, the applicable state rules to avoid prejudice in such situation were unclear, and the defendant in any event had taken no steps to protect himself. The case seemed to require reversal of any conviction when the record contained a prejudicial occurrence that under state law might have been prevented or ameliorated. Carnley v. Cochran, 369 U.S. 506 (1962), reversed a conviction because the unrepresented defendant failed to follow some advantageous procedure that a lawyer might have utilized. Chewning v. Cunningham, 368 U.S. 443 (1962), found that a lawyer might have developed several defenses and adopted several tactics to defeat a charge under a state recidivist statute, and that therefore the unrepresented defendant had been prejudiced.
220 Quicksal v. Michigan, 339 U.S. 660 (1950). See also Canizio v. New York, 327 U.S. 82 (1946); Foster v. Illinois, 332 U.S. 134 (1947); Gayes v. New York, 332 U.S. 145 (1947); Bute v. Illinois, 333 U.S. 640 (1948); Gryger v. Burke, 334 U.S. 728 (1948). Cf. White v. Ragen, 324 U.S. 760 (1945).
Last modified: June 9, 2014