The doctrinal literature on ineffective assistance of counsel typically begins with the 1932 Supreme Court case of Powell v. Alabama. This symposium contribution goes back farther, locating the IAC doctrine’s origins in a series of state cases from the 1880s through the 1920s. At common law, the traditional agency rule held that counsel incompetence was never grounds for a new trial. Between the 1880s and the 1920s, state appellate judges chipped away at that rule, developing a more flexible doctrine that allowed appellate courts to reverse criminal convictions in cases where, because of egregious attorney ineptitude, there was reason to think the verdict might have been different with a competent lawyer. In 1932, the Supreme Court drew upon this line of state cases when it ratified the emerging doctrine in Powell. The persistence of similar complaints of unfair trials across very different time periods, and despite much ostensible doctrinal change, suggests that the inequities of the American criminal justice system are structurally embedded in the adversary process more than they are a function of the specifics of the current iteration of right-to-counsel doctrine. As such, this history lends support to arguments for criminal justice reform that emphasize the need for systemic legislative and policy change rather than merely doctrinal tinkering.
Mayeux, Sara, "Ineffective Assistance of Counsel Before Powell v. Alabama: Lessons from History for the Future of the Right to Counsel" (2014). Faculty Scholarship at Penn Law. 1426.
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