The Bill of Rights and the 14th Amendment

Sixth Amendment

What does assistance of counsel mean?

This last freedom mentioned in the Sixth Amendment ensures that those defendants facing prison time have a lawyer to assist them in their defense. The U.S. Supreme Court in Gideon v. Wainwright (1963) recognized that attorneys in criminal cases are “necessities, not luxuries.”

The Court explained:

Lawyers to prosecute are everywhere deemed essential to protect the public’s interest in an orderly society. Similarly, there are few defendants charged with crime, few indeed, who fail to hire the best lawyers they can [542 U.S. 418] get to prepare and present their defenses. That government hires lawyers to prosecute and defendants who have the money hire lawyers to defend are the strongest indications of the widespread belief that lawyers in criminal courts are necessities, not luxuries. The right of one charged with crime to counsel may not be deemed fundamental and essential to fair trials in some countries, but it is in ours. From the very beginning, our state and national constitutions and laws have laid great emphasis on procedural and substantive safeguards designed to assure fair trials before impartial tribunals in which every defendant stands equal before the law. This noble ideal cannot be realized if the poor man charged with crime has to face his accusers without a lawyer to assist him.


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