On June 23, 2008, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the Constitution’s requirement of a right to counsel in the case of Walter Allen Rothgery v. Gillespie County, Texas. The ruling held under the Sixth Amendment that a person charged with a crime must be provided with counsel at the time of the initial arraignment—when the government first presents its charges against the defendant before a court of law—even if a prosecutor is not involved in that proceeding.
“We are pleased the Court recognized that the while the prosecution is making up its mind, the government cannot indefinitely delay the appointment of free counsel required by the constitution,” said David Udell, the Director of the Justice Program at the Brennan Center for Justice, which filed an amicus brief in the case along with the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund and the National Legal Aid and Defender Association. “By endorsing the bright-line rule that currently operates in 43 states, the court has done everyone a service. The alternative—appointing counsel only after the prosecutors decide to push a case forward—would be unworkable, as well as oppressive.”
Walter Rothgery had been arrested, arraigned, and then released on bail until a formal indictment prompted his re-arrest, increased his bail, and put him behind bars, where he stayed for three weeks until a lawyer—one was finally appointed for him a full six months after the arraignment—reduced his bail, enabling him to leave the jail. The lawyer then showed the prosecutor that the charges against Rothgery were erroneous, causing the prosecutor to dismiss the case. Had a lawyer been appointed at the first arraignment, Rothgery would probably never have gone to jail.