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Source: Powell v Alabama (1932)

5. In a capital case, where the defendant is unable to employ counsel and is incapable of making his own defense adequately because of ignorance, feeble-mindedness, illiteracy or the like, it is the duty of the court, whether requested or not, to assign counsel for him as a necessary requisite of due process of law, and that duty is not discharged by an assignment at such a time and under such circumstances as to preclude the giving of effective aid in the preparation and trial of the case. P. 71.

What does Mr Justice Sutherland mean by assignment? Why not just write the following? Does it differ?

... that duty is not discharged by preclude[ing] the giving of effective aid in the preparation and trial of the case.

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What does Mr Justice Sutherland mean by assignment? Why not just write the following? Does it differ?

... that duty is not discharged by preclude[ing] the giving of effective aid in the preparation and trial of the case.

To "discharge an assignment" or to "discharge a duty" means to complete it, to handle it properly.

The Court's duty is to appoint counsel for the accused (when the accused is unable to represent himself competently). The Court assigns the case to a lawyer.

If the Court assigns the case to an attorney, but has waited until very late in the process to do so, so late, in fact, that the attorney has little or no time to prepare a defense, then the court has not discharged its duty. The assignment by the Court (i.e. the assignment of the case to an attorney) was made in a manner that precluded effective representation by counsel.

Thus:

...that duty is not discharged by an assignment [made] at such a time and under such circumstances as to preclude the giving of effective aid ...

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Why not just write the alternative version? Because it means something different. The difference is not big.

Basically, Mr Sutherland states that the court has to provide counsel, and it cannot claim it did that if they provided council in a way that was not effective for the accused defence.

At such a time and under such circumstances as to preclude the giving of effective aid in the preparation and trial of the case can roughly be rewritten as:

This duty is not discharged if counsel is assigned untimely or under bad circumstances, so that it does not help the defendant in the way it is supposed to.

Your alternative simply states:

This duty is not discharged if it does not help the defendant in the way it is supposed to.

Yes, that means roughly the same, but the original specifies that it is due to time and circumstances that the assignment is ineffective. I can imagine there are situations where counsel was assigned in time and under the right circumstances, but still the aid provided was not effective. There might be reasons outside the responsibility of court or defence counsel that make an effective defence impossible, such as important evidence that is not known to exist at the time of the trial.

When such evidence is later discovered, one could argue that the aid provided by the counsel did not aid effectively; however, the court did discharge of its duty to provide defence counsel.

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