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Johnson v. Zerbst

Supreme Court Requires That Counsel Be Appointed

The Supreme Court agreed with Johnson. For much of the nation's history, the right to counsel meant that everyone who could afford to hire a lawyer had a right to do so. Then, in Powell v. Alabama (1932), the Supreme Court had ruled that state courts were obliged--under the Fourteenth Amendment's Due Process Clause--to provide counsel for those indigent defendants facing the death penalty. Now, writing for the Court, Justice Black spelled out a more expansive interpretation of procedural due process under the Constitution:

[The right to counsel] is one of the safeguards of the Sixth Amendment deemed necessary to insure fundamental human rights of life and liberty . . . It embodies a realistic recognition of the obvious truth that the average defendant does not have the professional legal skill to protect himself when brought before a tribunal with the power to take his life or liberty, wherein the prosecution is represented by experienced and learned counsel . . . The " . . . right to he heard would be, in many cases, of little avail if it did not comprehend the right to be heard by counsel."
Black added that Johnson's failure to request a lawyer directly from the trial court did not amount to a waiver of his right. Rather, in order to waive the right to counsel intelligently, a defendant must first be told that he has the right, then deliberately choose to waive it

The right to counsel in state courts was later expanded in Gideon v. Wainwright (1963), which granted indigent defendants the right to appointed counsel in all felony cases, and in Argersinger v. Hamlin (1972), which extended this guarantee to cover misdemeanor offenses and all crimes of a lesser order. The issue of informed right to counsel came to the forefront most prominently in Miranda v. Arizona (1966), in which the Court determined that the right begins at the time a criminal suspect becomes subject to police interrogation. Miranda was perhaps the high-water mark of the Court's "due process revolution," in which criminal procedure was radically overhauled to ensure that state criminal defendants received the benefits of the Bill of Rights. Johnson v. Zerbst was an important step along the way.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1918 to 1940Johnson v. Zerbst - Significance, Supreme Court Requires That Counsel Be Appointed, Federal Court Of Appeals