A Cronic problem

too soon?

Lawyers, despite what some would have you believe, are people too. We eat, we breathe, we cry, we laugh and we sleep. And there’s nothing wrong with that and there shouldn’t be. Except that last one – sleep – specifically if a lawyer decides that the cross-examination of his client, in front of a jury, is the perfect opportunity to catch a few winks.

Sleeping lawyers have been mentioned on this space before [and elsewhere], so I would be remiss in not pointing out the latest escapade of one who allegedly decided to shut his eyes for a few minutes during that oh-so-unimportant part of a criminal trial. This one comes courtesy of the 6th Circuit (and via Volokh) in Muniz v. Smith [PDF], in which Muniz alleged through the sworn affidavit of a juror that his attorney was, in fact, asleep.

I won’t bother with the facts of the case or the outcome, because both are quite obvious: there is no presumed prejudice under Cronic because there is no record that the lawyer was asleep for a substantial portion of the trial and there is no Strickland violation because goshdarnit Muniz was overwhelmingly guilty.

But the Court’s perfunctory analysis of the issues raises a greater problem: what is it that we expect of lawyers in our criminal justice system? Why is it acceptable for a lawyer to be asleep for even as little as a minute during a criminal trial?

In Cronic, SCOTUS said:

Most obvious, of course, is the complete denial of counsel. The presumption that counsel’s assistance is essential requires us to conclude that a trial is unfair if the accused is denied counsel at a critical stage of his trial. Similarly, if counsel entirely fails to subject the prosecution’s case to meaningful adversarial testing, then there has been a denial of Sixth Amendment rights that makes the adversary process itself presumptively unreliable. No specific showing of prejudice was required in Davis v. Alaska, 415 U. S. 308 (1974), because the petitioner had been “denied the right of effective cross-examination” which ” `would be constitutional error of the first magnitude and no amount of showing of want of prejudice would cure it.’ ” Id., at 318 (citing Smith v. Illinois, 390 U. S. 129, 131 (1968), and Brookhart v. Janis, 384 U. S. 1, 3 (1966)).

Circumstances of that magnitude may be present on some occasions when although counsel is available to assist the accused during trial, the likelihood that any lawyer, even a fully competent one, could provide effective assistance is so small that a presumption of prejudice is appropriate without inquiry into the actual conduct of the trial. Powell v. Alabama, 287 U. S. 45 (1932), was such a case.

That the cross-examination of the defendant during a trial is a “critical stage” in the proceedings cannot be denied. It can thus also not be denied that during that cross-examination, the defendant must have the assistance of counsel. It surely would not suffice to say that the defendant must have the assistance of counsel during some periods of the critical stage, but not all. The second paragraph certainly illustrates that: Muniz’s lawyer was technically “available”, so it isn’t a situation where there is an actual denial of counsel, but rather an effective denial of counsel. But can any lawyer provide effective assistance when asleep? Obviously not. So why don’t Cronic and Powell apply? Why is it okay, then, for a lawyer to be asleep during the cross-examination of his client, the defendant?

Cronic nowhere mentions the “substantial portion” requirement. That comes from further caselaw from the circuits interpreting and applying Cronic:

The Ninth, Fifth, and Second Circuits have all considered the question of when sleeping by trial counsel becomes the effective denial of counsel and “so likely .. .prejudice[s] the accused” that Cronic applies and prejudice is presumed. All of these circuits have held that the denial of counsel with presumed prejudice only occurs once counsel sleeps through a “substantial portion of [defendant’s] trial.” Javor v. United States, 724 F.2d 831, 834 (9th Cir. 1984); see also Burdine v. Johnson, 262 F.3d 336, 340-41 (5th Cir. 2001) (en banc) (concluding a defendant’s right to counsel was violated where defense counsel was “repeatedly unconscious through not insubstantial portions of the defendant’s capital murder trial”); Tippins v. Walker, 77 F.3d 682, 685 (2d Cir. 1996) (holding the defendant’s right to counsel was violated where defense counsel was asleep for “numerous extended periods of time”).

This still doesn’t answer the question, of course. The answer is, I suppose, that the Court makes a judgment that there are periods of a trial that are inconsequential. That if, for example, the lawyer falls asleep between witnesses, it clearly doesn’t affect the trial itself (now some might rightly argue that it does, but let’s assume that it doesn’t). But what about during the cross-examination of the defendant itself? The court, is in essence, applying a harmless error analysis to the lawyer’s actions. They’re condoning it because it really wouldn’t have made a difference whether the lawyer was awake or asleep. In doing so, in my opinion, the court conflates both Cronic and Strickland. Cronic, as noted above, says that whether it would have made a difference or not is irrelevant. What’s relevant is merely the fact that the defendant did not have access to counsel during a critical stage and that in those situations, because there is a paramount need to preserve the integrity of the system, we will assume prejudice. Strickland, on the other hand, says that where it is the performance of counsel that is under fire, we will see whether that performance made any difference in the outcome.

Cronic becomes useless.

Reading this opinion and its narration of the meaning and import of Cronic and Cronic‘s application, one is left with the distinct impression that it really is okay for lawyers to take brief naps during a criminal trial. That Cronic‘s language about the effective denial of counsel is meaningless and unenforceable.

Coupled with the very low bar of Strickland that one needs to skip over, it sends the message that we are willing to tolerate everything but the most outrageous instances of misrepresentation of clients.

That we do not require of those among the bar who take it upon themselves to protect and defending the liberties of others to be awake during one of the most crucial acts of the criminal trial. Is it too much to ask that lawyers stay awake when their clients are on the stand? Even if the prosecutor is droning ona and on and it’s after lunch and you’re slipping into that food coma?

Is the message a wink and a nod that those who are prosecuted are really guilty, so attorney performance doesn’t really matter?

Here’s a thought experiment: if you were the attorney, would you sign an affidavit saying you were asleep? Would you testify at an evidentiary hearing and admit that you were asleep during your client’s cross-examination?

That this is condoned is only further evidence of the fact that the purpose of the system is no longer to protect individuals, their liberties or their rights, and there is nary a regard for the appearance of justice, but rather the focus is on ensuring that those who go to trial are convicted and remain convicted.


On a similar note, thanks to a commenter at Volokh, I stumbled across these four videos recording a very odd, disturbing and sad courtroom interaction between an allegedly drunk lawyer and a judge trying to make sense of it all and protect the hapless individual seated at the defendant’s table. I’ve embedded Part 4 of the series below, because it gives the most flavor, but be sure the check out Parts 1, 2 and 3 as well.

3 thoughts on “A Cronic problem

    1. Gideon Post author

      Try it and let me know how it works out for you. Or better yet, if you were driving and fell asleep at the wheel, but argued that it was only at a red light.


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