The decision came in a case out of Alabama.
Speaking for the narrow majority, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said a suspended sentence that may end up in actual imprisonment -- because of a probation violation or other misstep -- may not be imposed unless a defendant was accorded a meaningful right to counsel.
Scalia noted that only 24 states "have announced a rule of this scope. Thus, the court's decision imposes a large, new burden on a majority of states, including some of the poorest (e.g. Alabama, Arkansas and Mississippi)."
In the case that brought the ruling, LeReed Shelton represented himself at trials in Etowah County, Ala. A state judge repeatedly warned him that self-representation was not the best way to go, but did not offer him a lawyer at state expense. Shelton was subsequently convicted of a misdemeanor and sentenced to a 30-day jail term, which was immediately suspended. The judge also placed Shelton on two years unsupervised probation.
However, the Alabama Supreme Court reversed the suspended jail sentence, citing precedents in the Supreme Court of the United States under which right-to-counsel is necessary, even for misdemeanor cases.
Alabama then asked the U.S. Supreme Court for review. Monday, the high court affirmed the Alabama Supreme Court decision.
In her announcement from the bench Monday, Ginsburg pointed out that the Sixth Amendment mandates the right to counsel.
"When a suspended sentence is activated by a probation violation, the defendant is jailed not for the probation violation but for the underlying offense," Ginsburg said. "The uncounseled conviction at that point 'results in imprisonment' and that, our opinion explains, is just what the Sixth Amendment forbids."
(No. 00-1214, Alabama vs. Shelton)