Friday, January 6, 2006

Cert Granted to Consider Whether Denial of Counsel of Choice Requires Automatic Reversal

The Supreme Court granted certiorari in United States v. Gonzalez-Lopez, 399 F.3d 924 (8th Cir. 2005), an Eighth Circuit decision holding that the improper denial of the right to counsel of choice by the district court required automatic reversal of the conviction without determining prejudice to the defendant.  The district court found that defendant Gonzalez-Lopez's preferred attorney, who was from California, had engaged in unethical conduct by contacting Gonzalez-Lopez without his then-attorney's permission in violation of the professional conduct rules (Rule 4.2 to be exact).  When the California attorney sought admission pro hac vice to represent Gonzalez-Lopez (whose original attorney had withdrawn, not surprisingly), the district court refused to permit the attorney to appear because of the perceived ethical violation.  In a separate opinion (403 F.3d 558 (8th Cir. 2005)) issued the same day, the Eighth Circuit held that the attorney did not violate the ethics rules by contacting Gonzalez-Lopez because the attorney was not representing any other clients in the matter.  In the main case, now before the Supreme Court, the Eighth Circuit found that the refusal to admit the attorney pro hac vice violated the Sixth Amendment right to counsel of choice, and reversed the conviction without requiring proof of prejudice:

We join the majority of circuit courts and hold the denial of a criminal defendant's Sixth Amendment right to be represented by the attorney he selected results in automatic reversal of the conviction. The denial of the right to counsel of one's choice does not fit in the category of cases reflecting a "trial error" which takes place "during the presentation of evidence to the jury" and can therefore be "quantitatively assessed in the context of other evidence presented." * * * Instead, the denial of the right to counsel of choice clearly belongs in the class of fundamental constitutional errors which reflect a defect in the framework of the trial mechanism and "defy analysis by 'harmless error standards.' " [quoting Arizona v. Fulminante]

The Solicitor General's Office sought review, and this case will allow the Court to play out its muddied position on "structural error" in the context of the Sixth Amendment right to counsel.  Because disqualification motions arise in a number of criminal cases,ranging from drug prosecutions (such as that in Gonzalez-Lopez) to white collar crime cases, the Court's decision will be important across the board.  The relevant documents in the case are available on the Scotus Blog (here). (ph)

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