As many of you may know, the United States has a Constitution. That may seem hard to believe, given our current president’s penchant for disregarding said Constitution, but it exists regardless.
In this Constitution, there are ten amendments specifically designed to protect the rights and liberties of the people of the United States.
These ten amendments are called, quite fittingly, the Bill of Rights.
Yes, I know many of you will be very familiar with the above information, as most public schools teach it to you in their history or government curriculum. However, most public schools also have the gym teacher read from a podium for an hour and call it teaching this class, so forgive me for wanting to refresh your memory before we get started.
Today, I would like to take the time to discuss one of these first ten amendments, and one of my favorite topics, the Sixth Amendment.
For those who don’t carry a miniature copy of the Constitution in their backpack, of which I am a big proponent of, the Sixth Amendment reads:
“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.”
The specific part of the Amendment I’ll be discussing is the last segment: “to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defence.” The first thought I always have after reading this Amendment is that they really used to spell defense in a weird way. Apparently defence is the British-English way to spell the word, while defense is the American-English form.
Now, you may be asking why on earth I am talking about an Amendment that was ratified over 200 years ago.
Well, last Wednesday, Feb. 27, the U.S. Supreme Court decided a case called Garza v. Idaho, which deals directly with the Sixth Amendment’s right to the assistance of counsel.
But in order to understand what the Court ruled in last week’s case, we must look back at the biggest ruling the Court has made regarding the Sixth Amendment, so strap in and let’s hop in the time machine.
The year is 1961. A man named Clarence Earl Gideon has just been arrested for stealing a bottle of wine, a couple dollars change and a packet of cigarettes from a local pool room in Panama City, Florida. Gideon appeared in court without a lawyer, as he was too poor to afford to hire one.
When Gideon requested that the court appoint him a lawyer, he was denied, as Florida state law did not require counsel to be provided to those who could not afford it, save only in death penalty cases. As such, Gideon represented himself at his trial and was found guilty of both breaking and entering and larceny. He was sentenced to five years in Florida state prison.
What followed has become something of a legend among Supreme Court cases. Gideon wrote his own appeal from prison and sent it to the Florida Supreme Court, which denied his request, and then to the U.S. Supreme Court. The Supreme Court agreed to hear his case and appointed him a lawyer, who happened to be a future Supreme Court Justice himself — who said the courts are boring?
This is howGideon v. Wainwright (1963) was born. In a unanimous, 9-0 decision, the Supreme Court ruled that Gideon was correct in that he was entitled to counsel. Under the Sixth Amendment to the Constitution we are guaranteed the right to a fair trial, the Court held that the right to counsel is an essential element of this.
It makes sense when you think about it. Certain things require specialized knowledge to do correctly and navigating the court system is one of those things. You wouldn’t, for instance, hire a welder to make a quilt, so why should you be forced to represent yourself in court?
Writing for the Court, Justice Hugo Black wrote, “Reason and reflection require us to recognize that in our adversary system of criminal justice, any person haled into court, who is too poor to hire a lawyer, cannot be assured a fair trial unless counsel is provided for him.”
And with that, the Supreme Court guaranteed that every citizen of the United States would be guaranteed an attorney, if they couldn’t afford to hire one themselves.
That was a lot of background information, right? Now that you know about Gideon, let’s switch back to the present and talk about last week’s decision: Garza v. Illinois. Gilberto Garza Jr. wanted his lawyer to file an appeal on his behalf, after Garza changed his mind about pleading guilty to the crimes he was accused of. The lawyer refused to file the appeal waiver and Garza was convicted.
Garza argued that his lawyer provided ineffective assistance of counsel as Garza did not file the correct appeal waiver. The Supreme Court ruled 6-3 in favor of Garza, stating that “An appeal waiver is not an absolute bar to all appellate claims.” Now, this case was relatively straightforward and altogether not that revolutionary because it dealt with a very narrow issue.
What is important is what Justice Clarence Thomas wrote in his dissenting opinion.
A dissenting opinion is when a judge disagrees with the majority decisions and gives his rationale for why he believes the case should have been decided the other way. In Justice Thomas’ opinion he wrote, “The Sixth Amendment appears to have been understood at the time of ratification as a rejection of the English common-law rule that prohibited counsel, not as a guarantee of government-funded counsel.”
Remember the Gideon decision? Justice Thomas is heavily implying that Gideon was decided wrongly. Justice Neil Gorsuch, one of President Trump’s nominees to the Court, concurred with Justice Thomas’ opinion; this means Gorsuch effectively endorsed the same position that Thomas took on the Gideon decision.
Now, I’d like to explain a few reasons why this is a foolhardy opinion. Everyday, thousands of people encounter the criminal justice system (cue the “Law & Order” sound effect). If Justices Thomas and Gorsuch had their way, this would mean any of those people who couldn’t afford a lawyer would be forced to represent themselves at trial. How is that fair? Spoiler: It wouldn’t be.
The good news is, the majority of Justices on the Court at this time don’t seem to share Thomas and Gorsuch’s opinion. In fact, Justice Samuel Alito also concurred with Thomas' opinion, but specified that he did not agree with the section in which Thomas implies Gideon was decided wrongly. So, it appears our Sixth Amendment right to counsel is safe for the foreseeable future.
Let’s hope it stays that way, or I may need to rethink my career path.
Kyle Mangrum is a junior majoring in Political Science. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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