SCOTUS today issued its opinion in Rothgery v. Gillespie County [pdf], which has caused some discussion in the blawgosphere. The prevalent theme in this discussion is a sense of being unfulfilled. A sort of “that’s it?”
There’s also some confusion as to what the decision really means.
Only one thing is clear: It is narrow. Very, very, narrow.
Our holding is narrow. We do not decide whether the 6-month delay in appointment of counsel resulted in prejudice to Rothgery’s Sixth Amendment rights, and have no occasion to consider what standards should apply in deciding this. We merely reaffirm what we have held before and what an overwhelming majority of American jurisdictions understand in practice: a criminal defendant’s initial appearance before a judicial officer, where he learns the charge against him and his liberty is subject to restriction, marks the start of adversary judicial proceedings that trigger attachment of the Sixth Amendment right to counsel.
So the decision was on a small, technical issue and the case will be sent back to the Fifth Circuit to determine whether any of Rothgery’s rights were actually violated (remember, this is a 1983 case).
So if they’d left it at that, it’d be fine. But then there’s this other business (from J. Alito’s concurrence):
As I interpret our precedents, the term “attachment” signifies nothing more than the beginning of the defendant’s prosecution. It does not mark the beginning of a substantive entitlement to the assistance of counsel. I write separately to elaborate on my understanding of the term “attachment” and its relationship to the Amendment’s substantive guarantee of “the Assistance of Counsel for [the] defence.” The Sixth Amendment provides in pertinent part that “[i]n all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right . . . to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defence.” The Amendment thus defines the scope of the right to counsel in three ways: It provides who may assert the right (“the accused”); when the right may be asserted (“[i]n all criminal prosecutions”); and what the right guarantees (“the right . . . to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defence”). It is in the context of interpreting the Amendment’s answer to the second of these questions—when the right may be asserted—that we have spoken of the right “attaching”.
Weaving together these strands of authority, I interpret the Sixth Amendment to require the appointment of counsel only after the defendant’s prosecution has begun, and then only as necessary to guarantee the defendant effective assistance at trial. Cf. McNeil, 501 U. S., at 177–178
So the criminal prosecution commences for Sixth Amendment purposes when there is an arraignment (or in Rothgery’s case – a presentment to a magistrate), but that doesn’t necessarily mean that the defendant be afforded counsel?
As Justice Alito’s concurrence notes, a finding that the right to counsel has “attached” means only that counsel must be present for “critical stages,” which are events where counsel needs to be present to preserve rights related to the forthcoming trial. There is, to date, no Supreme Court precedent that requires appointment of counsel for indigent defendants to protect rights other than trial.
So, we have no concrete decision on what is that first “critical stage”. Does the right to counsel attach only for critical stages, so in between these “critical stages”, there is no right to counsel? Or is it a critical stage from that first event all the way through to trial?
Obviously, I think the answers to these are fairly simple. There is an initial stage, say the arraignment, where a criminal prosecution is commenced. Anything that happens after that is with an eye toward a trial. So after arraignment, indictment or whatever it is in your local jurisdiction, right to counsel should attach (and a substantive right, not this incomprehensible Rothgery “right”). It only makes sense.
Some argue that there is no right to counsel during pre-trial negotiations. That is a red herring. No prosecution is undertaken with the goal of resolving it via plea bargaining. Plea bargaining is something that happens (albeit very frequently) along the way to a trial. During the plea bargaining process, the defense attorney is investigating the state’s case, conducting legal research, filing motions to dismiss/suppress, etc. It’s all with an eye toward the trial. That most cases are resolved via pleas is incidental.
Further, a plea bargain still results in a conviction (mostly) or a dismissal. If there were no right to counsel to assist in the plea bargaining process, then convictions would be obtained without counsel. There would be no one to point out the weaknesses in the State’s case; the whole system would be reduced to prosecutors vs. pro-se defendants. And then if a plea bargain goes south and case proceeds to trial, a defense attorney is placed in the position of having to undo the damage done by the pro-se defendant.
The system would not function. See previous post on IAC during plea bargaining for more.
One final point on Rothgery: The decision does not mandate, as some have suggested, that Texas appoint counsel for defendants every time someone is “presented” at a bail hearing. The decision did not address what Texas (or any other state) must do when a criminal prosecution is commenced. It simply addressed the time at which a prosecution is deemed to commence.
[The Crime and Consequences post linked to above has the throwaway line: “Of course, to be truly faithful to history the Court would have to overrule Gideon v. Wainwright, and be done with the whole appointed counsel matter.” Such a statement is dangerous and possibly ignores the disastrous consequences of such an event. It merits a whole post, which will follow sometime this week.]