Powell v. Alabama (1932)

Under the Sixth Amendment, counsel must be provided to all defendants charged with a capital felony in state court regardless of that defendant’s ability to pay.

Citation: 287 U.S. 45
Date decided: Nov 7, 1932
Longer case name: Ozie Powell, Willie Roberson, Andy Wright, and Olen Montgomery v. Alabama. Haywood Patterson v. same. Charley Weems And Clarence Norris v. same.
Law type: Criminal
Jurisdiction level:Federal
State of origin: Alabama
Topic(s):Due process and Right to counsel: Criminal
Lists:Important cases
Attorneys:Mr. Walter H. Pollak, with whom Messrs. Carl S. Stern and George W. Chamlee were on the brief, for petitioners. (Born in 1887 in New Jersey, Pollak graduated from Harvard Law School in 1910. In 1912, he joined the firm Simpson, Warren, and Cardozo, where he worked with BENJAMIN N. CARDOZO before Cardozo left in 1914 to become a New York Court of Appeals judge. Later Pollak became partner in the firm of Englehard and Pollak. Walter Heilprin Pollak was a lawyer and civil libertarian who is credited with convincing the U.S. Supreme Court to first adopt the INCORPORATION DOCTRINE, which the Court has used to extend most of the provisions of the BILL OF RIGHTS to limit actions by state and local governments.
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Case Importance

Though limited solely to capital felony cases, the court’s opinion in Powell was the first time the Sixth Amendment’s right to counsel was incorporated to state governments via the 14th Amendment due process clause. It wasn’t until the court’s 1963 opinion in Gideon v. Wainwright that the right to counsel would be extended to all criminal felonies. Eventually, the right was extended to include all crimes for which incarceration could be imposed in Argersinger v. Hamlin

Case Details

(The syllabus is not part of the opinion, but is a summary prepared by the court reporter as a convenience.)


Statement of the case

1. The rule denying the aid of counsel to persons charged with felony, which (except as to legal questions) existed in England when our Constitution was formed, was rejected in this country by the Colonies before the Declaration of Independence, and is not a test of whether the right to counsel in such cases is embraced in the guarantee of “due process of law.”

2. The rule that no part of the Constitution shall be treated as superfluous is” an aid to construction which, in some instances, may be conclusive, but which must yield to more compelling considerations whenever they exist.

3. The fact that the right of an accused person to have counsel for his defense was guaranteed expressly (as respects the federal Government) by the Sixth Amendment, notwithstanding the presence of the due process clause in the Fifth Amendment, does not exclude that right from the concept “due process of law.”

4: The right of the accused, at least in a capital case, to have the aid of counsel for his defense, which includes the right to have sufficient time to advise with counsel and to prepare a defense, is one of the fundamental rights guaranteed by the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

5. In a capital case, where the defendant is unable to employ counsel, and is incapable of making his own defense adequately because of ignorance, feeble-mindedness, illiteracy, or the like, it is the duty of the court, whether requested or not, to assign counsel for him as a necessary requisite of due process of law; and that duty is not discharged by an assignment at such a time and under such circumstances as to preclude the giving of effective aid in the preparationand trial of the case.

6. In a case such as this, the right to have counsel appointed, when necessary, is a logical corollary to the right to be heard by counsel.

7. In such circumstances, the trial court has power, even in the absence of statute, to appoint an attorney for the accused; and the attorney, as an officer of the court, is bound to serve.

224 Ala., 524, 531, 540, reversed.

CERTIORARI, 286 U. S. 540, to review judgments affirming sentences to death based upon convictions for rape. There was one indictment against these petitioners and two other persons. The petitioners were tried in three groups, as shown in the caption, pursuant to an order of severance obtained by the State.

Last modified: 2022-12-27 12:56
Case internal grade: A | Case internal status: OK |
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