Assistance of Counsel - Absolute Right to Counsel at Trial

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.


Historical Practice.—The records of neither the Congress that proposed what became the Sixth Amendment nor the state ratifying conventions elucidate the language on assistance of counsel. 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. This rule was 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.” Colonial and early state practice varied, ranging from the existent English practice to appointment of counsel in a few states where needed counsel could not be retained.289 Contemporaneously with the proposal and ratification of the Sixth Amendment, Congress enacted two statutory provisions that seemed to indicate an understanding that the Sixth Amendment guarantee was limited to retained counsel by a defendant wishing and able to afford assistance.290

By federal statute, an individual tried for a capital crime in a federal court was entitled to appointed counsel, and, by judicial practice, the federal courts came to appoint counsel frequently for indigents charged with noncapital crimes, although it may be assumed that the practice fell short at times of what is now constitutionally required.291 State constitutions and statutes gradually ensured a defendant the right to appear in state trials with retained counsel, but the states were far less uniform on the existence and scope of a right to appointed counsel. It was in the context of a right to appointed counsel that the Supreme Court began to develop its modern jurisprudence on a constitutional right to counsel generally, first applying procedural due process analysis under the Fourteenth Amendment to state trials, also finding a Sixth Amendment based right to appointed counsel in federal prosecutions, and eventually applying this Sixth Amendment based right to the states.

289 W. Beaney, The Right To Counsel In American Courts 8–26 (1955).

290 Section 35 of the Judiciary Act of 1789, ch. 20, 1 Stat. 73, provided that parties in federal courts 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.”

291 W. Beaney, The Right To Counsel In American Courts 29–30 (1955).

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.