United States v. Gonzalez-Lopez

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Opinion [Justice Scalia]
Dissent [Justice Alito]




certiorari to the united states court of appeals for the eighth circuit

No. 05–352. Argued April 18, 2006—Decided June 26, 2006

Respondent hired attorney Low to represent him on a federal drug charge. The District Court denied Low’s application for admission pro hac vice on the ground that he had violated a professional conduct rule and then, with one exception, prevented respondent from meeting or consulting with Low throughout the trial. The jury found respondent guilty. Reversing, the Eighth Circuit held that the District Court erred in interpreting the disciplinary rule, that the court’s refusal to admit Low therefore violated respondent’s Sixth Amendment right to paid counsel of his choosing, and that this violation was not subject to harmless-error review.

Held: A trial court’s erroneous deprivation of a criminal defendant’s choice of counsel entitles him to reversal of his conviction. Pp. 3–12.

(a) In light of the Government’s concession of erroneous deprivation, the trial court’s error violated respondent’s Sixth Amendment right to counsel of choice. The Court rejects the Government’s contention that the violation is not “complete” unless the defendant can show that substitute counsel was ineffective within the meaning of Strickland v. Washington, 466 U. S. 668, 691–696—i.e., that his performance was deficient and the defendant was prejudiced by it—or the defendant can demonstrate that substitute counsel’s performance, while not deficient, was not as good as what his counsel of choice would have provided, creating a “reasonable probability that … the result … would have been different,” id., at 694. To support these propositions, the Government emphasizes that the right to counsel is accorded to ensure that the accused receive a fair trial, Mickens v. Taylor, 535 U. S. 162, 166, and asserts that a trial is not unfair unless a defendant has been prejudiced. The right to counsel of choice, however, commands not that a trial be fair, but that a particular guarantee of fairness be provided—to wit, that the accused be defended by the counsel he believes to be best. Cf. Crawford v. Washington, 541 U. S. 36, 61. That right was violated here; no additional showing of prejudice is required to make the violation “complete.” Pp. 3–7.

(b) The Sixth Amendment violation is not subject to harmless-error analysis. Erroneous deprivation of the right to counsel of choice, “with consequences that are necessarily unquantifiable and indeterminate, unquestionably qualifies as ‘structural error.’ ” Sullivan v. Louisiana, 508 U. S. 275, 282. It “def[ies] analysis by ‘harmless error’ standards” because it “affec[ts] the framework within which the trial proceeds” and is not “simply an error in the trial process itself.” Arizona v. Fulminante, 499 U. S. 279, 309–310. Different attorneys will pursue different strategies with regard to myriad trial matters, and the choice of attorney will affect whether and on what terms the defendant cooperates with the prosecution, plea bargains, or decides to go to trial. It is impossible to know what different choices the rejected counsel would have made, and then to quantify the impact of those different choices on the outcome of the proceedings. This inquiry is not comparable to that required to show that a counsel’s deficient performance prejudiced a defendant. Pp. 8–11.

(c) Nothing in the Court’s opinion casts any doubt or places any qualification upon its previous holdings limiting the right to counsel of choice and recognizing trial courts’ authority to establish criteria for admitting lawyers to argue before them. However broad a trial court’s discretion may be, this Court accepts the Government’s concession that the District Court erred. Pp. 11–12.

399 F. 3d 924, affirmed and remanded.

Scalia, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Stevens, Souter, Ginsburg, and Breyer, JJ., joined. Alito, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which Roberts, C.J., and Kennedy and Thomas, JJ., joined.

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