The Sixth Amendment right of the “accused” to assistance of counsel in “all criminal prosecutions” is limited by its terms: “it does not attach until a prosecution is commenced.” McNeil v. Wisconsin, 501 U. S. 171, 175 (1991); see also Moran v. Burbine, 475 U. S. 412, 430 (1986). We have, for purposes of the right to counsel, pegged commencement to “‘the initiation of adversary judicial criminal proceedings—whether by way of formal charge, preliminary hearing, indictment, information, or arraignment,’” United States v. Gouveia, 467 U. S. 180, 188 (1984) (quoting Kirby v. Illinois, 406 U. S. 682, 689 (1972) (plurality opinion)). The rule is not “mere formalism,” but a recognition of the point at which “the government has committed itself to prosecute,” “the adverse positions of government and defendant have solidified,” and the accused “finds himself faced with the prosecutorial forces of organized society, and immersed in the intricacies of substantive and procedural criminal law.” Kirby, supra, at 689.
Of all the rights that an accused person has, the right to be represented by counsel is by far the most pervasive for it affects his ability to assert any other rights he may have.
In McMann v. Richardson, the Court recognize the right to counsel to mean “the right to effective assistance of counsel”. Drawing on the mandate of this most excellent quote from Marbury v. Madison (“every right, when withheld, must have a remedy, and every injury its proper redress”), the Court, in Strickland, gave teeth (however blunt) to that right, requiring a new trial for a defendant whose conviction was obtained in violation of the Sixth Amendment.
But all of this – Strickland, Cronic, even the quote in Marbury – is somewhat contradictory and rather backward looking. On one hand, these rights attach at the very institution of a criminal proceeding and counsel has tremendous duties and responsibilities to ensure that the defendant has a fair trial:
Representation of a criminal defendant entails certain basic duties. Counsel’s function is to assist the defendant, and hence counsel owes the client a duty of loyalty, a duty to avoid conflicts of interest. See Cuyler v. Sullivan. From counsel’s function as assistant to the defendant derive the overarching duty to advocate the defendant’s cause and the more particular duties to consult with the defendant on important decisions and to keep the defendant informed of important developments in the course of the prosecution. Counsel also has a duty to bring to bear such skill and knowledge as will render the trial a reliable adversarial testing process. See Powell v. Alabama.
On the other hand, any vindication of this Sixth Amendment right must come after a conviction is obtained. Thus, the “two-pronged” approach to deciding ineffectiveness claims:
Although we have discussed the performance component of an ineffectiveness claim prior to the prejudice component, there is no reason for a court deciding an ineffective assistance claim to approach the inquiry in the same order or even to address both components of the inquiry if the defendant makes an insufficient showing on one. In particular, a court need not determine whether counsel’s performance was deficient before examining the prejudice suffered by the defendant as a result of the alleged deficiencies. The object of an ineffectiveness claim is not to grade counsel’s performance. If it is easier to dispose of an ineffectiveness claim on the ground of lack of sufficient prejudice, which we expect will often be so, that course should be followed. Courts should strive to ensure that ineffectiveness claims not become so burdensome to defense counsel that the entire criminal justice system suffers as a result.
There may be an acknowledgment that the Sixth Amendment right to counsel has been violated due to sub-par performance on the part of the lawyer, but there doesn’t need to be any remedy because there was no harm – or, in other words, the “he’s guilty as hell so what difference does it make?” legal principle. What sort of a right is a right without any redress?
Certainly, the vast majority of trials will fall on two points on the spectrum: those with no errors and those with errors so debatable that one cannot know, during the pendency of the trial, whether they will have any impact on the outcome at all. Perhaps these are best reserved for review after the outcome.
But there are some errors, in the pre-trial context or even during a trial, that are so glaring, so immediate a denial of counsel that to proceed to a sham verdict and then “allow” the defendant to challenge his “conviction” would indeed be a manifest injustice. And yet the courts provide for no remedy for such a violation.
I’ve observed many trials and read just as many transcripts of trials. In a very small percentage of these, it was obvious to all present that counsel had absolutely no idea what he/she was doing. And yet, apart from the judge’s few feeble attempts to “assist” the attorney, the mockery was allowed to continue. For what can one do? Per the mandate of Strickland, there is no harm until there is a conviction, even though there will be one is abundantly apparent to all.
And even when the conviction is obtained and the challenge commenced, the institutional roadblocks to meaningful review of counsel’s performance are ever present. First, we must give high deference to the reasonableness of counsel’s performance:
Judicial scrutiny of counsel’s performance must be highly deferential. It is all too tempting for a defendant to second-guess counsel’s assistance after conviction or adverse sentence, and it is all too easy for a court, examining counsel’s defense after it has proved unsuccessful, to conclude that a particular act or omission of counsel was unreasonable. Cf. Engle v. Isaac, 456 U. S. 107, 133-134 (1982). A fair assessment of attorney performance requires that every effort be made to eliminate the distorting effects of hindsight, to reconstruct the circumstances of counsel’s challenged conduct, and to evaluate the conduct from counsel’s perspective at the time. Because of the difficulties inherent in making the evaluation, a court must indulge a strong presumption that counsel’s conduct falls within the wide range of reasonable professional assistance; that is, the defendant must overcome the presumption that, under the circumstances, the challenged action “might be considered sound trial strategy.” See Michel v. Louisiana, supra, at 101.
Then, when we’re done ticking that box, we must view counsel’s performance through his/her eyes at the time of that performance:
Thus, a court deciding an actual ineffectiveness claim must judge the reasonableness of counsel’s challenged conduct on the facts of the particular case, viewed as of the time of counsel’s conduct. A convicted defendant making a claim of ineffective assistance must identify the acts or omissions of counsel that are alleged not to have been the result of reasonable professional judgment. The court must then determine whether, in light of all the circumstances, the identified acts or omissions were outside the wide range of professionally competent assistance. In making that determination, the court should keep in mind that counsel’s function, as elaborated in prevailing professional norms, is to make the adversarial testing process work in the particular case. At the same time, the court should recognize that counsel is strongly presumed to have rendered adequate assistance and made all significant decisions in the exercise of reasonable professional judgment.
And finally, the defendant has to overcome the “it didn’t matter anyway” stonewall:
An error by counsel, even if professionally unreasonable, does not warrant setting aside the judgment of a criminal proceeding if the error had no effect on the judgment. Cf. United States v. Morrison, 449 U. S. 361, 364-365 (1981). The purpose of the Sixth Amendment guarantee of counsel is to ensure that a defendant has the assistance necessary to justify reliance on the outcome of the proceeding. Accordingly, any deficiencies in counsel’s performance must be prejudicial to the defense in order to constitute ineffective assistance under the Constitution.
Attorney errors come in an infinite variety and are as likely to be utterly harmless in a particular case as they are to be prejudicial. They cannot be classified according to likelihood of causing prejudice. Nor can they be defined with sufficient precision to inform defense attorneys correctly just what conduct to avoid. Representation is an art, and an act or omission that is unprofessional in one case may be sound or even brilliant in another. Even if a defendant shows that particular errors of counsel were unreasonable, therefore, the defendant must show that they actually had an adverse effect on the defense.
Even in the “denial of counsel” cases, the determination is always made ex post facto. Never has there been a case, to my knowledge, where a trial has been stopped midway and the parties have said: “this cannot proceed; this defendant must have adequate counsel”. Yet, the caselaw is littered with examples of poor lawyering and convictions being reversed. Why must we wait until a defendant has been convicted, spent years in jail, endured countless rounds of litigation to have a right vindicated that everyone knew was denied him in the first place?
Oh. That’s why. Granted, I am talking about a very small universe of cases, but the fact that this occurs and there is no remedy begs the question.
The Sixth Amendment right is not – and cannot – be limited to a trial alone. Indeed, it is clear that “to deprive a person of counsel during the period prior to trial may be more damaging than denial of counsel during the trial itself”. Maine v Moulton. I suppose that there are some options available to defendants who feel like they are receiving ineffective assistance of counsel pre-trial: they can file a motion to fire the lawyer or they can file a motion to withdraw their plea based on ineffective assistance of counsel (here, in CT, pursuant to Practice Book section 39-27). We know, though, how these arguments are viewed by the establishment: “oh, he’s just being difficult” or “he’s trying to game the system”. In Connecticut, the 39-27 IAC claim is a joke. I’ve never seen it granted. Judges routinely deny the motion to withdraw the plea without so much as appointing new counsel to investigate the claim and almost always without an evidentiary hearing. In both those instances, it’s the word of the defendant against, well, the system. The lawyer is put in a terrible position of having to defend himself, while still representing the interests of the client.
It’s the juggernaut of the conviction and it keeps rolling, rolling.
And of what of the defendant who jumps up during a trial because he can’t take it anymore, who can see that his lawyer has so badly messed things up that his conviction is a foregone conclusion? What redress does he have? Is he entitled to any? Or does he just have to take his lumps and hope that down the road, someone will see it his way and give him a new trial with a competent lawyer?
One way to assuage some of the doubts is to ensure that states provide adequate and competent public defenders, with resources necessary to effectively represent clients. But, then again, these systemic claims do not implicate Strickland.
Strickland was a mutant born of a half-hearted attempt to give meaning to a core Constitutional right. It is time for it to die and to be replaced by a better, more effective standard that actually means something to those whose confidence in their convictions has been undermined.
1. As an aside, I found the following passages from Justice O’Connor’s opinion in Strickland to be rather interesting. I’ll have to give it some more thought, but perhaps the habeas practitioner could find some meaning in the attempted explanation of the prejudice prong.
Even when the specified attorney error results in the omission of certain evidence, the newly discovered evidence standard is not an apt source from which to draw a prejudice standard for ineffectiveness claims. The high standard for newly discovered evidence claims presupposes that all the essential elements of a presumptively accurate and fair proceeding were present in the proceeding whose result is challenged. Cf. United States v. Johnson, 327 U. S. 106, 112 (1946). An ineffective assistance claim asserts the absence of one of the crucial assurances that the result of the proceeding is reliable, so finality concerns are somewhat weaker and the appropriate standard of prejudice should be somewhat lower. The result of a proceeding can be rendered unreliable, and hence the proceeding itself unfair, even if the errors of counsel cannot be shown by a preponderance of the evidence to have determined the outcome.
Accordingly, the appropriate test for prejudice finds its roots in the test for materiality of exculpatory information not disclosed to the defense by the prosecution, United States v. Agurs, 427 U. S., at 104, 112-113, and in the test for materiality of testimony made unavailable to the defense by Government deportation of a witness, United States v. Valenzuela-Bernal, supra, at 872-874. The defendant must show that there is a reasonable probability that, but for counsel’s unprofessional errors, the result of the proceeding would have been different. A reasonable probability is a probability sufficient to undermine confidence in the outcome.
2. Another aside: While writing this post, I had the nagging feeling that I’d touched upon this topic before. Turns out, I have. With a very similar title. Two years ago. Just goes to show that I’ve been blogging for a really long time and that there is such a thing as “dearth of topics”.