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Scott v. Illinois, 440 U.S. 367 (1979).

Over the past forty-seven years, the sixth amendment right to counsel, as applied to the states through the fourteenth amendment, has undergone almost constant expansion. In 1932 the evolution began in Powell v. Alabama, when the Supreme Court held that, in capital cases: (a) the sixth amendment right to counsel is of a fundamental nature, and applicable to the states through the due process clause of the fourteenth amendment; and (b) the state must provide counsel for indigent defendants. Ten years later, in Betts v. Brady, the Court refused to extend the right to counsel further, holding that indigents were not entitled to appointed counsel in most noncapital state cases. But the Court soon recognized that under some circumstances counsel must be appointed even in noncapital cases.

Although Betts nominally remained the general rule, the majority of the cases that followed were found to fall under a “special circumstances” exception. Finally, in 1963, the Court specifically overruled Betts in Gideon v. Wainwright, holding that fundamental fairness required that counsel be appointed in all felony cases. The Gideon holding was further broadened in Argersinger v. Hamlin, when the Supreme Court unanimously extended the right to have counsel appointed in all cases which result in the actual deprivation of liberty. Subsequent state and lower federal court decisions differed in their application of Argersinger. Some courts adhered strictly to a narrow “actual imprisonment,” or “imprisonment in fact” standard. Others interpreted Argersinger to require counsel whenever there was a possibility of imprisonment, and so applied the “imprisonment in law” standard. Still others, while recognizing that Argersinger went no further than the “actual imprisonment” standard, held that the broader “imprisonment in law” standard was a logical extension of Argersinger.

This dispute was resolved by the Supreme Court in the case of Scott v. Illinois.

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