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Abstract

The Sixth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution guarantees criminal defendants the right to counsel, and the U.S. Supreme Court has made clear that right is applicable to all defendants in felony cases, even those unable to afford a lawyer. Yet, for defendants facing misdemeanor charges, only those defendants whose convictions result in incarceration are entitled to the assistance of counsel. The number of misdemeanor prosecutions has increased dramatically in recent years, as have the volume and severity of collateral consequences attached to such convictions; yet, the Court’s right to counsel jurisprudence in this area has remained stagnant. Critics of the doctrinal and pragmatic problems created by the Court’s actual incarceration standard have advocated for various reforms to better protect people accused of misdemeanors, including redefinition or expansion of the right to counsel and legislative changes that would cut back on incarceration and allow states to better apportion their limited resources among defendants. This Article offers a novel perspective, grounded in due process and equal protection and a line of Supreme Court cases that guarantee equal access to the courts. Viewed in that light, indigent misdemeanor defendants denied counsel may not suffer from a Sixth Amendment violation under the law as it stands, but they are deprived of meaningful access to the courts on the basis of wealth. It suggests that reconceputalizing the plight of misdemeanor defendants through the lens of due process and equal protection may help to identify the most effective judicial and legislative solutions to the crisis of “assembly line justice.”

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