Providing Broader Sixth Amendment Protections: We Can Afford to Give Indigent Defendants More
Though the Framers intended for the Sixth Amendment to secure criminal defendants’ right to a fair trial by providing them with the right to effective assistance of counsel, the full right to effective assistance of counsel is not currently guaranteed. A recent Sixth Circuit case, Turner v. United States, held that a defendant does not have the right to effective assistance of counsel until the right to counsel attaches. This is troubling given that in Turner, the defendant, John Turner, received a sentence ten years greater than the sentence he would have received but for his state counsel’s ineffectiveness. The Sixth Circuit rejected Turner’s ineffective assistance of counsel claim because under current jurisprudence, the right to counsel has a bright-line rule: it does not attach until an indictment is brought or the defendant is brought before a judge. Turner’s attorney for his state case negotiated a plea deal with federal prosecutors before a federal indictment was brought, and therefore, the right to counsel did not attach in the federal case. Thus, Turner did not have the right to effective assistance of counsel.
This tension between ineffective assistance of counsel and when the right to such counsel attaches is striking: it deprives criminal defendants of a Sixth Amendment right. Courts can resolve this tension, however, by recognizing that (1) effective assistance of counsel is an independent Sixth Amendment right; (2) the right to counsel raises different administrative and fairness concerns than effective assistance of counsel; and (3) courts apply the different strands of the Sixth Amendment independently, differently, and respective of the concerns the particular case raises. Furthermore, courts should promptly resolve this tension because the racial disparity in outcomes indicates that Turner situations will fall unevenly along poor and minority lines. The Sixth Amendment will not completely and effectively fulfill its purpose of guaranteeing criminal defendants the right to effective assistance of counsel unless it is properly interpreted to protect defendants like John Turner.
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- Columbia Journal of Race and Law
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- October 31, 2019