The Sixth Amendment

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The Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution reads:

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 defence.

While the Sixth Amendment encompasses several rights and privileges of the individual beyond the right “to have the assistance of counsel,” the right to counsel is paramount. As the Supreme Court noted, “Of all the rights that an accused person has, the right to be represented by counsel is by far the most pervasive, for it affects his ability to assert any other rights he may have.”

The Fourteenth Amendment gives our federal courts express authority to tell states what our federal constitution requires the states to do to provide due process and equal protection of the laws to all people. It says, in part: “No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.” In 1963 in the case of Gideon v. Wainwright, the Supreme Court held that the provision of Sixth Amendment lawyers for indigent people is a state obligation under the Fourteenth Amendment. Although the Court has never directly considered whether it is unconstitutional for a state to delegate this constitutional responsibility to its counties and cities, if a state does delegate the responsibility to its local governments, the state must guarantee that local governments are not only capable of providing adequate representation, but that they are in fact doing so.

Continue reading, to learn what Supreme Court case law says about the types of cases in which an attorney must be provided for the poor and the specific points during those cases — known as “critical stages” — that cannot constitutionally take place without the right to counsel being fulfilled.