CUYLER V. SULLIVAN, 446 U. S. 335 (1980)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Cuyler v. Sullivan, 446 U.S. 335 (1980)

Cuyler v. Sullivan

No. 78-1832

Argued February 20, 1980

Decided May 12, 1980

446 U.S. 335


Two privately retained lawyers represented respondent and two others charged with the same murders. Respondent, who was tried first, made no objection to the multiple representation. The defense rested at the close of the prosecutor's case, and respondent was convicted. The two codefendants later were acquitted at separate trials. Respondent then sought collateral relief under Pennsylvania law, alleging that he had not received effective assistance of counsel because his lawyers represented conflicting interests. After a hearing at which both defense lawyers testified, the Pennsylvania Court of Common Pleas denied relief. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court affirmed, finding no multiple representation and concluding that the decision to rest the defense was a reasonable trial tactic. Respondent next sought habeas corpus relief in Federal District Court, but the court accepted the Pennsylvania Supreme Court's conclusion that respondent's lawyer did not represent the other defendants, and further concluded that respondent had adduced no evidence of a conflict of interest. The Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit reversed. It held that the participation of the two lawyers in all three trials established as a matter of law that both lawyers represented all three defendants, and that the possibility of conflict among the interests represented by these lawyers established a violation of respondent's Sixth Amendment right to counsel.


1. The Court of Appeals did not exceed the proper scope of review when it rejected the Pennsylvania Supreme Court's conclusion that the two lawyers had not undertaken multiple representation. The Pennsylvania court's conclusion was a mixed determination of law and fact not covered by 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d), which provides that a state court's determination after a hearing on the merits of a factual issue shall be presumed to be correct. Pp 446 U. S. 341-342.

2. A state criminal trial, a proceeding initiated and conducted by the State itself, is an action of the State within the meaning of the Fourteenth Amendment. If a defendant's retained counsel does not provide the adequate legal assistance guaranteed by the Sixth Amendment, a

Page 446 U. S. 336

serious risk of injustice infects the trial itself. When the State obtains a conviction through such a trial, it is the State that unconstitutionally deprives the defendant of his liberty. Thus, there is no merit to petitioners' claim that failings of retained counsel cannot provide the basis for federal habeas corpus relief. Pp. 446 U. S. 342-345.

3. Respondent is not entitled to federal habeas corpus relief upon showing that the state trial court failed to inquire into the potential for conflicts of interest and that his lawyers had a possible conflict of interests. Pp. 446 U. S. 345-350.

(a) The Sixth Amendment requires a state trial court to investigate timely objections to multiple representation. But unless the state trial court knows or reasonably should know that a particular conflict exists, the court itself need not initiate an inquiry into the propriety of multiple representation. Under the circumstances of this case, the Sixth Amendment imposed upon the trial court no affirmative duty to inquire. Pp. 446 U. S. 345-348.

(b) Unless the trial court fails to afford a defendant who objects to multiple representation an opportunity to show that potential conflicts impermissibly imperil his right to a fair trial, a reviewing court cannot presume that the possibility for conflict resulted in ineffective assistance of counsel. In such a case, a defendant must demonstrate that an actual conflict of interest adversely affected the adequacy of his representation. Pp. 446 U. S. 348-350.

(c) The possibility of a conflict of interest is insufficient to impugn a criminal conviction. In order to establish a violation of the Sixth Amendment, a defendant must show that an actual conflict of interest adversely affected his lawyer's performance. P. 446 U. S. 350.

593 F.2d 512, vacated and remanded.

POWELL, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BURGER, C.J.,STEWART, WHITE, BLACKMUN, REHNQUIST, and STEVENS, JJ., joined, in Part III of which BRENNAN, J., joined, and in Parts I, II, and III of which MARSHALL, J., joined. BRENNAN, J., filed an opinion concurring in part and concurring in the result, post, p. 446 U. S. 350. MARSHALL, J., filed an opinion concurring in part and dissenting in part, post p. 446 U. S. 354.

Page 446 U. S. 337

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