Tuesday, June 27, 2006

SCOTUS holds that it is a Sixth Amendment violation to deny defendant first choice of counsel

In United States v. Gonzalez-Lopez, a criminal defendant was on trial for possession and distribution of marijuana. The district court, however, denied his paid attorney of choice pro hac vice admission and the defendant had to proceed to trial with another lawyer.

The Government argued that the Sixth Amendment only protects the right to competent, paid counsel, not the lawyer of the defendant's choice. The Government further contended that the Sixth Amendment violation is not "complete" unless the defendant can show that substitute counsel was ineffective within the meaning of Strickland v. Washington. SCOTUS disagreed.

SCOTUS noted that the right at stake was the right to counsel of choice, not the right to a fair trial. SCOTUS described the error as "structural" and held that the error violated respondent's Sixth Amendment right to counsel of choice and that this violation is not subject to harmless error analysis.

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