The Sixth Amendment is a collection of rights, essential to protecting defendants against injustice in the courts. This amendment then is a guidebook, detailing how our God-given rights are protected during criminal prosecutions. Defendants are guaranteed a speedy trial by an impartial jury of their peers. They are also entitled to confront and cross-examine witnesses, known as the Confrontation Clause, and they have the right to call their own witnesses. The amendment states,
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 defence.
It’s that last clause — the Right to an Attorney — that many say is the most important part of the Sixth Amendment.
When first written, the clause didn’t mean — not yet anyway — that defendants had the right to a court-appointed attorney if they couldn’t afford one on their own. It was typical for defendants in the colonies to represent themselves in front of the court.
Remembering that the Constitution was ratified in 1791, the Right to an Attorney clause simply meant that if they wanted to hire a lawyer, they were entitled to it. This was in stark contrast to British law, stipulating that unless defendants were charged with treason, felony suspects had no right to a lawyer.
It wasn’t until 1932 that the Supreme Court ruled that defendants have a right to have the government appoint, and pay for, a defense lawyer. Powell v. Alabama 287 U.S. 45 (1932). In this case, the United States Supreme Court threw out the convictions of several defendants based upon a lack of access to assistance of counsel, and its progeny established and expanded the Sixth Amendment right to effective counsel. Given the intricacies of the law, and the stakes involved for felony defendants, that decision further ensured all Americans are equal under the law and that “Lady Justice,” with her iconic blindfold, meant that justice must always be impartial and fair.