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Counsel: Right to Counsel

The Sources Of The Constitutional Right To Counsel, A Framework For Thinking About When The Constitutional Right To Counsel Attaches

The Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution provides that "[i]n all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right . . . to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defense." Over the past seventy-five years, the contours of this constitutional right have expanded dramatically. Originally, the Sixth Amendment simply ensured that the defendant in a federal criminal case who could afford to hire counsel would be entitled to appear through a lawyer, rather than being forced to defend himself. But beginning in the early 1930s, and expanding over the next three decades, the U.S. Supreme Court and state supreme courts came to require the government to provide lawyers to the vast majority of criminal defendants who could not afford to hire a lawyer. As other aspects of criminal law and procedure have become increasingly complex, the need for counsel has grown correspondingly. Moreover, the greater complexity of constitutional criminal procedure—for example, the intricate rules governing the admission of evidence and appropriate jury instructions—means that defendants need not only a lawyer's physical presence; they need effective assistance. Much of the doctrinal development of the past twenty years, then, has focused not on when a lawyer must be provided—a question largely answered by the 1980s—but on how a lawyer must perform in order to realize the Sixth Amendment's guarantee.


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Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationCrime and Criminal Law