Right to Counsel | Definition

Doc's CJ Glossary by Adam J. McKee


Course: Introduction / Procedural Law

The Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution (part of the Bill of Rights) provides that “in all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall…have the Assistance of Counsel for his defense.”  In other words, there is a Constitutional Right to Counsel.

For a very long time in U.S. legal history, you could have an attorney, but only if you could afford one. The idea of the state appointing attorneys for indigent (poor) defendants would come much later.

As a guarantee provided by the Federal Constitution, this right was not directly applied to the states until the civil rights revolution brought on by the Warren Court during the 1960s and 1970s.

Two major cases define the legal landscape of the right to counsel for indigent defendants today:

In Gideon v. Wainwright (1963) the Supreme Court held that the Sixth Amendment requires that states appoint indigent defendants counsel in all felony cases.

The rule was expanded in Argersinger v. Hamlin (1972) when the court ruled that an indigent defendant had the right to appointed counsel whenever there was any risk of imprisonment, including misdemeanor charges.

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Last Modified: 07/06/2021


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