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Scott v. Illinois

Interpreting Argersinger

In reaching its decision to affirm the findings of the Illinois Intermediate Appellate Court and Illinois Supreme Court, the Supreme Court made a very narrow interpretation of the ruling in Argersinger. Writing for the majority, Justice Rehnquist stated that Argersinger applied only to cases in which a defendant was actually sentenced to time in prison, and was inapplicable in cases where imprisonment was either not part of the sentencing guidelines or merely a sentencing option. This reflects a very literal reading of the majority opinion in Argersinger, which stated that "every judge will know when the trial of a misdemeanor starts that no imprisonment may be imposed, even though local law permits it, unless the accused is represented by counsel." Rehnquist went on to conclude that "the central premise of Argersinger that actual imprisonment is a penalty different in kind from fines or the mere threat of imprisonment--is eminently sound and warrants adoption of actual imprisonment as the line defining the constitutional right to appointment of counsel." Finally, to extend the guarantee of legal counsel to all misdemeanor defendants would cause "confusion and impose unpredictable, but necessarily substantial, costs" on the states.

The four dissenting justices disagreed strongly with the majority's reasoning. In their view, the Sixth Amendment clearly delineated the right of defendants to legal counsel regardless of the circumstances of their trial or the potential sentences they faced. The dissent also maintained that Argersinger extended the right to counsel to all defendants facing a possible prison term, regardless of their actual sentence.

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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