Right to Counsel

Right to Counsel


Using your text and the internet, in narrative format with a minimum of 500 words, outline the case of Powell v. Alabama. Give the facts, issue, and court holding of the case.

The Powell v. Alabama case came before the US Supreme Court to appeal against the ruling held by the Alabama Court, which convicted eight African-American teens of rape. The accused persons were sentenced to death. The teens were saved from execution by stays of execution, commutations, and appeals. One year later, Justice George Sutherland of the US Supreme Court made a landmark reversing the convictions and ordering that the cases be retried. The judge in his ruling held the Alabama Court had violated the defendants’ rights to due process (Zalman, 2001).

The main issue in the Powell v. Alabama case was the violation of the defendants’ due process rights by being denied the right to proper legal representation. Although it was argued that the presiding judge in Alabama had appointed the bar to represent the defendants, Justice Sunderland faulted the appointments by asserting that the right to counsel was not complete because the attorneys representing them failed to meet the threshold of providing consultation and working with the defendants to prepare for the case (Zalman, 2001).

Another issue concerns the climate under which the hearings were conducted. The US Supreme Court was told of how the defendants were rushed through the process of justice each getting a summary judgement which took a day to reach. The Supreme Court also learnt that the capital sentence was influenced by the racism climate that prevailed in Alabama at the time of the trials. This atmosphere infringed on the constitutional rights of the defendants to access a fair trial (Zalman, 2001)..

Justice Sutherland differed with the opinion of the Alabama Supreme Court, which held that the defendants enjoyed both the rights to counsel and the provision of due process. In his opinion, Judge Sutherland argued that the defendants were strangers in Scottsboro and were not given an opportunity to appoint lawyers of their choosing. Additionally, it emerged that the defendants were denied a chance to contact their families for the purpose of arranging for legal counsel.

Another fact also emerged touching on the appointed of counsel for the defendants. It emerged that no white lawyer was willing to represent the defendants in the highly segregated South. This revelation shocked and annoyed Justice Sutherland in equal measure. He wondered how a lawyer would pick a defendant and claim to represent the client without prior preparation. Justice Sutherland discovered that there was lack of resolution and focus as no lawyer was available to organize an inquiry into the facts of the Scottsboro case. The defence presented by the lawyers representing the defendants was inadequate to the extent that it lacked preparation and dedication that a case of such magnitude required (Zalman, 2001).

Justice Sutherland and the Court held that the claim that the defendants were accorded legal representation was an affront to the ideal of a fair trial that is often directed by a dedicated lawyer or attorney. The Justice held that the lawyers owed the defendants the right to be heard by counsel in the run up to the trial. These facts led the US Supreme Court to rule that the Fourteenth Amendment due process rights of the defendants were broken and as thus ordered a retrial of the cases.



How, and to what extent, were the nine co-defendants represented by counsel?

The nine co-defendants in the Scottsboro case had some fictitious form of legal representation. No lawyer that was willing to represent any of the co-defendants specifically. A lawyer from Tennessee, Steven Roddy, is a good example of those that did not want to commit themselves towards representing the defendants. He instead chose to appear together with the counsel that would be appointed by the court.

The trial judge did not appoint a single lawyer to represent any or all of the defendants. Instead, the judge appointed “all members of the bar” for the purpose of arraigning the defendants. This meant that any member of the bar that was available in court could stand in defence of the defendant regardless of the level of preparation. The counsel available to the defendants was inadequate to the extent that the lawyers did not give audience to the defendants in the run up to the cases.


Why did the Supreme Court conclude they were not properly represented and give the factors for their decision?

The Supreme Court concluded that the co-defendants were not properly represented because the ruling violated the defendants’ rights to counsel. First, the defendants were not allowed an opportunity to select legal counsel of their own choice. Second, the lawyers appointed by the trial judge did not commit themselves to ensuring fair trial for the defendants. The Supreme Court had that the appointed lawyers only took up the cases on the hearing days. These lawyers neither did preliminary investigations into the facts of the case nor accorded the defendants a right to be heard (Acker, 2008).

According to the US Supreme Court, proper representation occurs where a defendant is allowed a chance to employ a counsel of his choice. If the defendant cannot afford a lawyer, the State can then appoint one for the defendant. Regardless of the nature of appointment, a defence lawyer must work closely with the defendant to establish the facts of the case. This is in line with the Fourteenth Amendment on due process, which was violated by the trial Court of Alabama (Acker, 2008). These violations coupled with the factors listed above led to the Supreme Court’s decision, which held that the defendants were not represented properly.


If you were the judge in the Powell v. Alabama case, what policies or procedures would you put in place to have ensured the right to representation would have not been compromised?

As a judge in the Powell v. Alabama Case, I would move to institute policies and procedures that would ensure that defendants got proper legal representation. First, I would ensure that all arresting officers inform the suspects that they had a right of representation. Second, I would make it mandatory that all accused persons be allowed sufficient time to contact their families and make private arrangements on legal representation. Third, I would make a provision that State-appointed attorneys be made available to offer legal representation to poor defendants who cannot afford to hire a lawyer. Fourth, I would make it a mandatory requirement that all defence lawyers spend ample time with their clients and prepare for the case.

Additionally, I would institute a policy, which prohibits hearing of a case in a climate that is likely to influence the outcome of the case. Another useful policy is one that assures justice for all regardless of race, colour, and religious affiliation.


Evolution of the Right to Counsel

The case of Powell v. Alabama (19232) sets a precedence that required the State to provide legal counsel to defendants that were too poor to hire their own lawyers. The right it counsel established in this ruling has since evolved. In 1938, Justice Hugo Black directly applied the Sixth Amendment to bring in legal representation in a federal case. Certain defendants chose to waiver their rights to counsel. It was required that all trial judges investigate the waivers carefully and make written submissions of their findings.

The Betts v. Brady case (1942) departed from the precedent set by Powell v. Alabama (1932). In this case, the defendant requested the judge to appoint a counsel for him but the trial judge declined the request arguing that the court only appointed lawyers for cases that included murder and rape only. The Gideon v. Wainwright case (1963) saw the incorporation of the Sixth amendment into the Fourteenth Amendment due process ensuring that all State felony defendants were guaranteed right to counsel. The right to counsel was expanded to include other felony charges. Today, every accused person has a right to legal representation. Moving forward, trial judges should appoint counsel that is most qualified to represent the defendant.


Acker, J. R. (2008). Scottsboro and its legacy: The cases that challenged American legal and social justice. Westport, Conn: Praeger.

Zalman, M. (2011). Criminal procedure: Constitution and society. Upper Saddle River, N.J: Pearson/Prentice Hall.

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