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Scott v. Illinois

Legal Precedents

It is generally agreed that the Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which guarantees due process of law to those accused of crimes, was not intended by its writers to demand provision of legal counsel to the accused, but rather only to bar the state from denying individuals the right to legal representation in court. Nevertheless, since the 1930s the U.S. Supreme Court has consistently held that the Sixth Amendment does guarantee legal counsel to those accused of crimes. In Powell v. Alabama (1932) the Court overturned the sentences of eight black youths who were convicted and sentenced to death in an abbreviated trial without the benefit of legal counsel. The Court continued to broaden its interpretation of the Sixth Amendment guarantee of due process in Johnson v. Zerbst (1938), ruling that federal criminal defendants who lacked the financial means to retain legal counsel must be provided with an attorney by the court. In each of these cases the Court reasoned that due process could only be guaranteed by the presence of counsel, and, in Johnson, that an individual's financial means should not unduly impact upon their legal status.

The Court failed to extend the same guarantee of counsel to individuals accused of felonies by the states. In Betts v. Brady (1942), the Court held that states were free to judge the circumstances under which felony defendants facing state charges need be provided with counsel. This ruling was overturned in Gideon v. Wainwright (1963), however, when the Court ruled that all state felony defendants must be provided with legal counsel if unable to obtain it for themselves. Finally, in Argersinger, the Court held that a defendant charged with a misdemeanor was entitled to state appointed counsel.

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Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1973 to 1980Scott v. Illinois - Significance, An Open-and-shut Case?, Legal Precedents, Interpreting Argersinger, Impact